Monique Cox remembers exactly how she felt when her mentor, Doris Diel, first came into her life.
Cox’s mother had left, and her father had passed away. She was placed in the foster-care system at age 12 and shuttled between different homes.
Then, during her sophomore year in high school, Cox met Diel through a youth mentoring program run by the nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) organization in San Luis Obispo County.
“To be honest, I wasn’t too crazy about it at first,” Cox said. “I didn’t know who this mentor lady was, and I looked at it like just another social worker.
“As soon as I found out how kind-hearted and supportive Doris was, though, I started to feel comfortable,” she said. “Doris was a really good, positive person in my life at that time, and that was so important.”
Diel remembers, too. Monique, she said, was her first case as a CASA, and the two gradually grew close after weeks and months of hanging out and talking at movie theaters, restaurants, and libraries.
“At first, I was scared, and I didn’t know if I was making a difference or not, but, as it turned out, I absolutely did,” said Diel, a longtime nurse who retired in 2009. “Monique grew into a wonderful woman, and I’m just so impressed and proud of her.”
Even though Cox is now 28 and Diel is 64, the two women remain good friends. In November 2013, Cox was sworn in as an official CASA, joining her mentor as a volunteer and coming full circle.
“I just want to return the favor and do something wonderful for somebody else,” said Cox, now a real estate lease administrator in Santa Barbara. “Now that I’m on the other end of things, I do wish that more people would volunteer, because there just aren’t enough volunteers.”
Cox’s feelings about mentoring were echoed by the community at large. New Times spoke with mentors, mentees, and nonprofit staffers from three different organizations, and all of them said mentoring was extremely valuable for at-risk youths—but also said the supply of local volunteers is lagging behind the high demand.
The three organizations—CASA, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Family Care Network (FCN)—are all local nonprofits geared toward helping disadvantaged children and young adults. All have slightly distinct missions, but all three organizations also run a mentoring program.
“I think we do great work, but there are hundreds of kids—about two-thirds of our particular population—who aren’t getting the help or assistance they need,” said Melanie Barket, mentor program supervisor at CASA of SLO County. “There’s a great demand for mentors.”
As Barket explains, CASA has always advocated for children up to age 18 in the court system, but the recent passage of Assembly Bill 12 in 2012 extended foster-care services to eligible youths, who can now opt in until age 21 if they so choose.
Under AB 12, CASA and FCN received a grant from the state Department of Social Services that enabled them to expand their mentoring programs, especially in the crucial 18-to-21 age range.
“A lot of people don’t even think about mentoring being available in the 18-to-21 group, but it’s crucial for foster youth who have to make big decisions right then,” said Marie Hughes, 35, a FCN mentor.
Hughes has mentored a teenage girl for the past year, and describes her mentee as a “treasured friend” whom Hughes has helped to figure out car purchases, budgeting issues, and other young-adult challenges made more difficult by the lack of a parental figure.
“Sometimes there’s a fear with mentoring; people think they have to be really qualified or have certain skills, and that’s just not true,” Hughes said. “There’s no such thing as a ‘mentoring license’—you just have to care about people and have a desire to be a part of their life. That’s all it is.”
Grace Scandrett, 24, is also a FCN mentor, and agreed that many people are unnecessarily “scared” of being mentors.
“For me, the fears were extinguished pretty quickly,” Scandrett said. “The time commitment is reasonable and you’d don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to be there and be responsive.”
Many of the mentors who spoke with New Times echoed the sentiment that mentoring is an endeavor as simple as it is important. Many times, foster youth are just looking for a constant, unbiased person to talk to in the midst of their tumultuous lives, the mentors said.
“It’s not hard to spend time with these young people,” said Chad Noland, 58, a Big Brother mentor. “You can walk, hike, play catch, or just talk. You don’t have to come up with elaborate or expensive activities. The simple little things mean a lot.”
Noland has been mentoring his Little Brother—Fernando, 11, who is in foster-care—for about a year now. Chad’s wife, Lorraine, also volunteers as a Big Sister, and Noland said that though their high-energy younger counterparts can wear them out, he and his wife still find the mentoring experience quite rewarding.
January 2014, as it turns out, is the 13th annual National Mentoring Month, and the county Board of Supervisors read a proclamation during its Jan. 7 meeting encouraging more volunteer mentoring in SLO County.
FCN and CASA will also staff a booth at the Jan. 9 downtown Farmer’s Market in San Luis Obispo.
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at [email protected].