Written by Don Wells, executive director, Just in Time for Foster Youth — a member of the “Strong Families, Thriving Communities” coalition led by the Clinton Foundation, in partnership with The San Diego Foundation and the County of San Diego.

“In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what the chemical makeup of chemistry is, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.” — Maya Angelou

When I became the executive director at Just in Time for Foster Youth (JIT) in San Diego, I looked for the best research I could find on the essential gaps that needed to be filled for transition-age youth to successfully launch into self-sufficient adulthood. Needs include access to education, financial literacy, stable housing, meaningful employment, and emergency funds. I know that there are many other organizations focused on filling these gaps in a variety of ways but what struck me was the one item on the list — actually the very first critical need, that seemed to be in short supply — connection to a consistent relationship with a caring adult.

This led to JIT prioritizing relationships as a primary focus to create a sense of extended family and community for the youth we serve. The feeling of disconnection that exists for some young people can be very devastating and it can’t simply be filled by providing resources. In fact, we’ve found that available resources have much more impact and power when delivered through a caring relationship offering guidance. There’s an adage that says, “I don’t care what you think, until I think that you care.” JIT’s “Coach Approach to Mentoring” is based on that foundation. We care about youth and see them as creative and resourceful with a high capacity for change. We work in partnership with young people and other organizations to help them achieve their goals and aspirations.

One such initiative is the “Strong Families, Thriving Communities” (SFTC) coalition led by the Clinton Foundation, in partnership with The San Diego Foundation and the County of San Diego, which works to improve the health and well-being of children and families who interact with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. JIT is one of over 50 organizations that are a part of the SFTC mentorship workgroup which recognizes the transformative nature of peer mentorship and effective mentor relationships. SFTC works to build capacity and understand what’s currently being done in San Diego County to increase participation of young people and discuss how we can collectively elevate mentoring services, particularly access to peer mentors. SFTC’s work has resulted in the newly-formed San Diego Mentorship Network, a dynamic collaboration where we will share best practices, ideas, and resources with the goal of making sure that every young person in need of a supportive mentor can find one.

And that’s the challenge. Reaching our collective goal is not possible without people, people who truly understand that no one does well who feels disconnected and feels a lack of belonging. I believe there is simply no greater service any of us can offer than meeting that need consistently and authentically for a young person hungry to be seen and heard. Whatever your experience, expertise, knowledge, or status — the main thing you need to have a positive impact on a young person’s life is the capacity to show up and care.

Mentors convey a simple but fundamental message to a young person: I believe in you. At JIT, I’ve seen those four words change lives. If you can say those words and mean them, find an organization that will allow you to share that transformative power to change the world, one young person at a time.

Learn more about the Strong Families, Thriving Communities coalition and find out how you can become a mentor today.