Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Low-Risk Way to Help At-Risk Kids

January 26, 2017
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The Low-Risk Way to Help At-Risk Kids
MentorMe founder Brit Fitzpatrick, who benefited from mentoring herself, believes in giving back. Courtesy of Brit Fitzpatrick
With algorithms and analytics, the Tennessee-based startup MentorMe is out to change the way communities invest in the young people who live there.

Perhaps the biggest danger for at-risk youth is the loss of social ties. Stranded by an absent family or an uncaring community, there’s usually no stopgap to prevent a young person from dropping out of school, turning to drugs or uncorking their anger with violence — unless a coach, pastor or neighbor steps in. In other words, these children need a mentor.

Too often, the kids most in need of reassurance and guidance aren’t connected with a mentor. Nearly one-third of America’s youth grow up without a trusted adult relationship outside their home. Of those, more than half — 9 million American kids, about the same size as all of New York City — are considered at-risk.

As the founder and CEO of MentorMe, a tech platform for youth and small business development, Brit Fitzpatrick is out to change that. “I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we shifted the way we view mentoring relationships from something formed by happenstance or as a product of privilege, to something that can be used as a tool to actually strengthen our communities,” she says. “What would happen if we shifted the focus of cities from attracting outside talent to actually investing in the young talent that’s already there? What if, along with great neighborhoods and great schools, every child was given a great mentor?”

The for-profit MentorMe, founded in 2014 in Memphis, Tenn., uses technology to better serve disconnected youth. Their cloud-based platform helps nonprofit organizations match their volunteers to the right child, manage the pair’s activities and then measure the impact of the relationship. As clients like Points of Light, the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and the State of New York can vouch, MentorMe’s automated software program beats tracking each mentor and mentee on an Excel spreadsheet or, worse, with pen and paper. At Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, senior manager Desiree’ Robertson says the biggest boon has been the online application, particularly useful during the holidays when she might receive five or six requests a day. Fitzpatrick estimates that, for most clients, administrative time is cut by a quarter with the platform.

“The way mentoring programs are traditionally run is not scalable, as they rely on paperwork, spreadsheets and half-baked solutions,” Fitzpatrick says. “Unfortunately, most people underestimate the time needed to run mentoring programs successfully, and while they roll out to great fanfare, most fizzle out before gaining significant traction.”

Why is a streamlined process so important? Matching a kid with the wrong mentor can actually do significant damage. A mentoring relationship that lasts for less than six months actually degrades a young person’s feelings of self-worth and perceived performance in school. That’s why it’s essential to partner adults and children based on shared interests and expectations and to ensure they are meeting up at regular intervals, which MentorMe’s platform tracks.

If the pair jives, the results can be life-changing. Fitzpatrick, who herself benefited from mentoring, knows this firsthand. Raised by a single mom, she spent her after-school hours and summers at the Boys and Girls Club. Since graduating from Howard University in 2009, getting her first job in digital media marketing and founding a startup, she has given back by mentoring others. And her platform has helped another 6,000 volunteers find a young person to advise.

“As individuals, we may not be able to eradicate poverty; we may not be able to wipe out youth violence,” Fitzpatrick says. “But we can all start where we are, reach back and find a young person to invest in. Then, collectively, we can all be part of providing a brighter future for the next generation.”

Homepage photo courtesy of MentorMe.

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