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Parent mentor coordinators prepare for a group presentation.
Parent mentor coordinators prepare for a group presentation. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz/The Hechinger Report

If it weren’t for Amanda Gallardo, Steffan Barahona’s road to becoming the first in his family to attend college in the United States might have been much bumpier. As it was, during his senior year of high school in Arlington, Virginia, Barahona felt completely overwhelmed by the application process.

Gallardo — a Communities in Schools site coordinator and a first-generation college student herself — had faced similar challenges. She’d been there.

“I didn’t have anybody guide me through that process of getting through high school and going to college,” she says. “I wanted to be that for somebody.”

Gallardo took on a role that every young person needs in their lives: a caring mentor. She offered both practical and moral support, and as his senior year progressed, Barahona started coming into Gallardo’s office for more than academic advice. They would talk when his home life was stressful, his classwork was too much, or he had challenges with friends at school.

Related: Students can’t learn if they don’t show up at school

Since evidence emerged in the mid-1990s of the significant positive impacts that professionally supported volunteer mentors can have on young people, the field has grown. With limited funding and largely grassroots efforts, the strategy reaches an estimated 4.5 million young people who have mentors through structured programs run by nonprofits, schools and community centers.

“One in three young people — representing nine million at-risk youth — recalled a time growing up when they didn’t have a mentor outside their family, but wished they did.”

Many more young people, like Barahona, benefit from informal mentoring relationships with friends, neighbors, faith leaders, teachers, coaches, social workers and others. With a mentor, young people are more likely to stay in school, hold leadership positions, volunteer regularly, go to college and become mentors themselves.

But many youth who could benefit from mentoring simply aren’t receiving it. One in three young people — representing nine million at-risk youth — recalled a time growing up when they didn’t have a mentor outside their family, but wished they did.

It should be obvious to all that any young person already dealing with the effects of poverty, being placed in foster care or facing a parent’s incarceration will have fewer chances to strive and thrive. This reality amplifies the urgent call to bolster these young people through mentoring.

Related: Education Nation: Mentoring becomes as much about parents as it is about kids

America needs smart, cost-effective and timely ways to level the playing field for students like Barahona who need extra support and guidance. If we fail to provide these things, we risk creating a generation of “lost Einsteins,” as experts on inequality have recently called them: young people brimming with potential to be high achievers but whose talents our nation will never see.

That’s not the future these kids deserve, and it’s not the future this country wants.

Imagine the potential of a child, of a community and of a nation when all are connected through the power of relationships, like Barahona and his mentor. It’s a vision we can — and should — all work toward.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

David Shapiro is CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.

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