Many middle school and high school students are faced with life-changing decisions that will determine their future. These are the years when many teachers and parents begin to feel helpless; many students stop showing up at school and engage in behaviors that will keep them from reaching their academic goals. Familiar wisdom disappears in a sea of peers, pressures, and a general sense of lostness.

Research and experience show that a novel adult voice can break through the adolescent noise and communicate the importance of education, community, and citizenship. Each January, National Mentoring Month promotes the individuals and organizations available to mentor these students.

The San Antonio Mentoring Collaborative wants to provide local students with the adult mentors they need. For an hour each week, the Collaborative connects dedicated community volunteers with young people who have been identified as “at-risk” by their teachers and principals.

The Mentoring Collaborative currently reaches 1,556 students, thanks to an agreement with San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) and partnerships with Alamo Heights ISD, Northside ISD, and Southwest Preparatory School. Principals can choose whether or not to participate in the program, but right now the demand is overwhelming.

A mentor and student involved in the San Antonio Mentoring Collaborative. Courtesy photo.
A mentor and student involved in the San Antonio Mentoring Collaborative. Courtesy photo.

Mentors are able to join the program through Big Brothers Big Sisters, Communities in Schools, and San Antonio Youth for Christ . All three organizations are respected and well-connected, but the Collaborative still needs more mentors.

“We are hoping with My Brothers Keeper initiative and the push in January we will start seeing some of the demand being met,” said Jessica Weaver, CEO, Communities In Schools San Antonio.

Nearly 1,700 kids are on the waiting list, said Gilbert Hernandez, president and executive director, Youth For Christ. To bridge the gap, it falls to him to tap into one of the biggest pools of potential volunteers, the Christian faith community. The son of an inner city pastor, Hernandez has seen firsthand how the resources of the Christian church and the needs of the community can go unmatched unless someone is there to bridge the gaps in trust and understanding.

“We’ve become kind of a translator between schools, churches, and the government,” said Hernandez.

In his mind, the need is too big to get hung up on differing philosophies or ideals. San Antonio is getting too big to allow for a provincial approach to issues like education and health.

“We’re starting to deal with major city problems,” said Hernandez.

Gilbert Hernandez, courtesy photo
Gilbert Hernandez, courtesy photo

One of those problems is teen pregnancy. That’s the issue that initially brought Hernandez into the mentoring conversation.

In 2009, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District was looking for new partners to help reduce teen pregnancies as part of Project Worth efforts. In 2009, Texas Tribune and the United Way measured Bexar County’s pregnancy rate for teens ages 13-17 as somewhere between 23-28%. That number jumped significantly when Metro Health calculated the pregnancy rate for 15-19 year olds.

A nonprofit group suggested that Metro Health looking into the resources of the Christian community. 

The Search Institute’s List of 40 Developmental Assets  noted “religious community” as #19 on the list of most effective forms of support for adolescents.   Researchers also found that of the students demonstrating 30 to 40 of the assets, 88% spent more than one hour per week with religious groups, worship services or similar activities. Clearly, faith communities have a lot to offer young people, and in San Antonio, the Christian communities are the largest, and most well-resourced.

The problem, of course, is that government and Christian churches don’t always get along, particularly when it comes to public health. Decades of squaring off on issues of abstinence education, birth control and abortion has left both sides wary.

A mentor and student matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Courtesy photo.
A mentor and student matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Courtesy photo.

The institutions needed a translator, which is where Hernandez came in. He found common ground in the research showing that teens who have a strong connection to their support networks are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including risky sex. Nobody wants teens to have risky sex.

The scope of the conversation between Metropolitan Health and its community partners soon expanded beyond teen pregnancy issues. That’s when the Mentoring Collaborative was born.

Teen pregnancy isn’t the only reason kids drop out or get in trouble. Many students act out because of anger and feelings of abandonment, but mentors can help reach them. They can help students think about long term financial benefits of education, as opposed to dropping out to get a job at age 16. Many teens have never had a positive male role model, and for them, male mentors can be the first voices of affirmation and encouragement they hear from an adult man. Without mentoring programs, most of those social and emotional issues fall into the hands of teachers.

“Educators today are being tasked with a lot more than education,” said Hernandez.

Of course, the potential influence of a mentor means that they need to be carefully screened, trained, and monitored. Bringing in Big Brother Big Sister and Communities in Schools created a diverse network of mentors and training resources. Youth For Christ became the ideal conduit for Christian communities who wanted to serve their city.

“If churches are really doing the work of the mission Christ entrusted us with, that has to include the whole community,” said Hernandez.

Youth For Christ had a positive track record of supporting young people. It is a name trusted by churches for their commitment to the Christian Gospel.

A mentor and student matched through Youth For Christ. Courtesy Photo
A mentor and student matched through Youth For Christ. Courtesy Photo

Hernandez earned the trust of the local government and schools by setting up clear boundaries. He respects the separation of church and state, and explicitly prohibits members from proselytizing on campus. All parties agreed that mentors should be allowed to refer to their faith as a positive influence in their lives if asked by students, but they may not initiate such conversations. Hernandez cautions mentors-in-training to respect the teens’ family and spiritual environment, and to stick to common ground as much as possible.

“When we’re on school campuses our program is faith-neutral,” said Hernandez.

That doesn’t mean that Hernandez or his mentors are faith-neutral. Hernandez is explicit about his faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. He also recognizes the many practical implications of his faith: service, peacefulness, patience, kindness, goodness, commitment, and self-control. These are the values Youth For Christ mentors can emphasize for their social and academic benefit.

As the program grows, Youth For Christ will expanding its offerings through the Mentoring Collaborative. Many churches have excelled at offering parent-to-parent programs, daycare facilities, marriage counseling and men’s groups within their own walls. Youth For Christ encourages them to take the ministries public, extending the blessings they have received to the whole community.

Hernandez said that some participating churches like Wayside Chapel and Christ Episcopal Church have become models of best practices. Next, he would like to find a way to engage the Christian business community, and leverage the networks of support and mentorship that already exist to bring even more resources to teens around the city.

*Top image: Students from Thomas Edison High School thank Communities in Schools. Photo courtesy of CIS’ Facebook Page. 

Related Stories:

Brainiac: Mentoring Beyond the Basics

Reading Buddies Invest in Inner City Students

Communities in Schools: A One-Stop Shop for Success in Classrooms

Faith Convening: Connecting Church, Community to Schools

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.