How to become a mentor

Candace was seven when she met Marion. Her mom, a single parent, worked full-time and figured Candace and her two younger sisters could benefit from having another role model around. But Marion, who was a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, would eventually become more than a mentor; she’d become a lifelong friend.

“I don’t remember having too many hesitations about having a Big Sister,” Candace wrote in a blog post on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website. “Marion welcomed me into her life with open arms. There was almost an immediate level of comfort with us.”

There’s no question that kids benefit from mentorship. Young people need role models and someone they can count on, and mentors can provide friendship, a listening ear and kindness. But because the stakes feel so high, potential mentors are often unsure if they have what it takes.

It is a big commitment, says Allison Haskins, volunteer coordinator at Big Brothers Big Sisters of York, a United Way–supported agency. But potential mentors receive plenty of support. Haskins is there for every step of the application process, answering questions and making sure each candidate is suitable.

“Mentorship is all about being a positive role model and friend. Modelling good character traits and following through on the commitment are key,” she explains. “There’s no expectation to be or do anything other than that.”

At Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentors go through a comprehensive screening process that includes an interview, reference check, police vulnerable sector screening and interview before they’re matched with children. Mentors can request a particular age group (Big Brothers Big Sisters serves kids aged six to 18) and can choose a volunteer program that best suits their schedule. In one-on-one community-based programs, mentors spend three to four hours every week or every other week with their mentee, doing things like going to the park, playing video games or hanging out at the library. There are also one-on-one school programs, in which mentors can spend one lunch hour a week playing sports, crafting or reading. And finally, volunteers can sign up for group programming. Big Brothers Big Sisters plans the activities for these group sessions, which require an hour or two a week. Volunteers are expected to commit to at least one year, but many continue volunteering beyond that—and often, volunteers in the one-on-one programs remain friends with their mentees for life.

The growth seen in children with mentors is tremendous and can have lifelong benefits for them. Their behaviour improves in school and at home, they build positive character traits of their own, and they share their growth with family, friends and classmates. Their school work improves, and they tend to stay in school longer. Mentees also set goals and make better life choices. “There is an awesome ripple effect in the community,” says Haskins. “Children thrive with positive mentors!”

But the value to the mentor can be just as profound.

“There’s huge and incredible opportunity for growth as a human being when you act as a mentor,” she says. “Volunteers have a fantastic opportunity to gain experience and build character, sound judgment and personal discipline. Mentoring brings about personal fulfillment, and a great sense of pride and accomplishment. It is a great boost to one’s self-confidence.”

The decision to become a mentor shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the benefits to both mentor and mentee are worth it. Just ask Candace—after experiencing the ways in which having a Big Sister changed her life, she recently became a Big Sister herself. She’s excited to make a difference in a child’s life and share memories that will last a lifetime.

Learn more about how to become a mentor on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website, where you can connect with a local chapter or talk to a staff member about other volunteer opportunities.

3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.