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Wanted: American Indian mentors

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is in the midst of an accelerated, nationwide effort to reach out to vulnerable youth in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

The Native American Mentoring Initiative was created with the help of a $2 million grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to recruit and encourage greater participation of Native American children and adults.

“In just 10 months, we have been able to serve close to 400 Native American children with our targeted program,” said Jolene Aguilar, (San Ildefonso Pueblo) BBBSA Native American Mentoring Initiative coordinator.

There are currently 29 agencies working with tribal communities, Aguilar said. The program is run under the guidance of formal and informal AI/AN advisors and elders to help ensure strategic, culturally relevant programmatic approaches. In Alaska, for instance, Flossie Spencer (Inupiat) serves as director of the Native American Mentoring Initiative.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for us,” said Taber Rehbaum, CEO of BBBS of Alaska. “We were a good fit for this initiative.”

Rehbaum said one-third of the kids in BBBS of Alaska are Alaska Native. Domestic violence, substance abuse, teen suicide and improving high school graduation rates are among the issues facing Alaska Native youth. “The need is just enormous. In a healthy community, there would be less need for us.”

BBBS matches children with strong, long-term mentors whose friendship and guidance help positively shape a child’s life and increase their likelihood of becoming healthy, productive adults.

Volunteer mentors provide references and undergo a background check and personal interview with BBBS to determine how their interests match with a child in need. “It’s a really thorough interview process,” Aguilar said. “When they do match, it’s a quality match.”

The presence of Native American advisors at the local and national level is imperative to the success of the initiative, according to Aguilar. “Our intent is to create a Native American mentoring model.”

Aguilar and Rehbaum said mentoring is a concept inherent to tribal communities. “We’re mobilizing people in the community to take action,” Rehbaum said. “We are doing it in a slow and deliberate manner. We are learning every day.”

The professionally supported volunteer services of BBBS are proven to improve children’s overall academic performance, foster stronger relationships with adults and peers and help children resist unhealthy choices such as drugs, alcohol and violence.

National research shows that children participating in BBBS mentoring programs are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol, and 52 percent less likely to skip school.

One of the keys to the program’s success is the length of the relationship between the child and the adult mentor. BBBS volunteers are asked to commit to a year. The longer the relationship with the child, the more effective and beneficial it is to the child in the long run, Aguilar said. For mentors, it’s an opportunity to share and pass along one’s knowledge and experience and make a difference in a child’s life.

“Very often, the friendships that form are lifetime,” Rehbaum said.

The initiative is committed to making more than 2,000 new Native American matches in 30 target agencies by the end of 2010. To date, Native American mentoring matches total 2,081. Aguilar said the biggest challenge the organization faces is finding male mentors. “There’s a long waiting list for little boys.”

According to the BBBS Web site, at www.bbs.org, more than 70 percent of children waiting for mentors are boys, but only three out of every 10 inquiries about volunteering come from men. “A lot of it is fear,” Aguilar said.

Both Aguilar and Rehbaum said the need is particularly great for Native American male mentors. “First of all, they’re in great demand for many things,” Rehbaum said.

Aguilar and Rehbaum said they see the trend slowly turning in the future, beginning with changing the mindsets of potential volunteers. No special skills or degrees are required. “You don’t have to be Mother Theresa to be a good volunteer,” Rehbaum said. “We’re not asking you to be a perfect person.”

Aguilar also emphasized mentoring doesn’t require a lot of time from volunteers – about three to four hours per month. But it’s time that can change a child’s life.

For more information about the Native American Mentoring Initiative, contact Aguilar at Jolene.aguilar@bbbs.org or (505) 503-0505.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at lorrainejessepe@msn.com.