The holidays have always been about giving. Doling out presents is an easy way to feel like we've done something nice. Even nicer is to donate money to a favorite cause. But nicest of all is to give of ourselves, to engage in doing something that helps make the world a little better -- whether it's volunteering at a pet shelter, serving food in a soup kitchen, or mentoring someone in need.
For Louise Moss, mentoring is a year-round, decades-long pursuit. Twenty years ago, she was a caseworker in Connecticut's Department of Social Services, working to find jobs for welfare recipients. It was rewarding work, but she was often dismayed at how many of the women would get jobs, only to be fired three months later when a car broke down or a child got sick.
"It was frustrating," she says, "because if they only had some additional one-on-one support -- someone to tell them to junk that unreliable car and help them find a back-up person for child care -- they would not miss work and then lose their jobs."
So Moss started something new: In addition to filling out forms and arranging for job interviews, she told some of the women to use her as a personal resource. "I let them call me whenever they needed help or advice," says Moss, "and I found that the ones who used me did much better."
The upturn in good results attracted attention. "We were asked to write a manual on this new approach, and we decided instead to do a pilot program." With no nonprofit experience and nothing but an idea, she spent a year working with literacy volunteer Paige Oristano to design a program that would promote economic independence for poor women. The pair interviewed more than 200 women who were on welfare or were employed in minimum wage jobs, along with dozens of local business owners and managers in an effort to link the needs of the women with work force needs.
In 1990, a small pilot project began with 10 women: The Women's Mentoring Network (WMN), the first program of its kind in Connecticut and one of the first four national programs, used mentoring as a means to improve the lives of impoverished women. Since its launch, the program has been replicated around the country and internationally. It has grown from 10 women a year to more than 275 women and their families in 2011.
"Soon after we started, we got a letter from the first President Bush designating us as one of the 'Thousand Points of Light,'" says Moss, with a chuckle. "I was astonished, but we were so inexperienced it didn't even occur to us to put out a press release!"
When WMN started out, Moss and her team were rigid about the concept of mentoring, sticking to a traditional one-on-one relationship. "But we learned that people have such different needs," says Moss. "Foreign-born women need help with assimilation; some need help with starting a business. Now there are even groups who mentor. A group of women here 'adopted' one of our families with the intention of enrichment. They took the kids to plays and took the mom to an opera in New York."
Is there a typical profile of a mentor? "Not really -- there are all ages and types, though most are mature professionals who have achieved a fair amount of success on their own. These women want to pass along what they've learned. And they don't all work individually; sometimes their skills can best be used in a workshop setting. But they do have one thing in common. "They just want to give back; they see the value in helping society by reaching out to those who don't have their same advantages."
What result is Moss happiest about from the past 21 years? "For me, it has to be the trickle-down effects of our work on children. WMN helps women build positive expectations for themselves, and they, in turn, pass these expectations to their children. Children in our families do not drop out of school, and 80 percent go on to post-high-school education. For me, that is our greatest validation."
1. Mentoring makes us feel better about ourselves and our own capabilities. You don't think you have a special skill to share? Think about it. We all do.
2. It can break the cycle of poverty. Many of the WMN mentors had hardship in their lives and now want to help break the cycle for others.
3. It can make your community a better place to live. It helps both adults and their kids.
4. It can be eye-opening and world-expanding. Mentoring connects people from different backgrounds -- especially people from different countries. The relationship doesn't only school the protégé.
5. It's gratifying to see the direct result of your work. You mentor a young woman about how to do a job interview and then see the smile on her face when she aces it. As Moss notes, "There is a tremendous sense of pride in seeing someone you care about making strides."
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