In the bottom drawer of my rather cavernous, and somewhat dusty, file cabinet—wedged between a pile of discarded Cape Cod souvenirs and an assortment of T-shirts—sits the treasure of a life's work with children: letters from my campers. Each one is different. Some are written carefully by hand, others hastily scrawled on pieces of scrap paper; some are typed, some are in pencil, and others bear the bright, and alternating, imprint of crayon. Although not one has likely seen the light of day since its receipt, I know they are there and what they represent . . . testament to the power of camp counselors to shape and transform young lives.

If only we can get them to embrace it.

Indeed, achieving and sustaining "buy-in" from this most peripatetic of generations requires a freshness of approach in communicating perhaps the oldest credo of camp. Yet, when done effectively, we can truly empower a new wave of camp counselors to embrace their crucial role as mentors of youth.

Before we get to the communication part, however (look for "Letters From My Campers – Part II, A Counselor's Guide to Mentoring Youth" in the upcoming May/ June issue of Camping Magazine), we must fully understand the construct of mentoring and the outcomes it promotes.

The Value of Mentoring Youth

Youth mentoring has become a staple of the American landscape, growing exponentially through community and, increasingly, school-based programs designed to boost social and academic functioning. For example, according to "School-Based Mentoring: A Closer Look," a report from Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the effectiveness of social policies and programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America's school-based matches grew from 27,000 in 1999 to 90,000 in 2002, an increase of 233 percent. This explosion of mentoring programs has been accompanied by increasing efforts to systematically evaluate their effectiveness.

What We Know

A review of available data on the impact and efficacy of youth mentoring points to evidence of its positive effects on youth. For example, mentoring has been shown to:

  • Enhance school performance;
  • Improve relationships with parents and peers;
  • Reduce initiation of drug and alcohol use; and
  • Decrease incidents of youth violence.

We also know that mentoring is closely linked with other important psychological/sociological constructs, such as youth development, resiliency, and risk/protective factors.

Youth Development
Important components of youth development include positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, values, and spirituality. It is interesting, and important, to note that among the forty "assets" identified by the Search Institute as "building blocks that help young people grow up healthy, caring, and responsible (Search Institute 2005)" are the following:

• Other Adult Relationships: Young person receives support from three or more non-parent adults. • Caring Neighborhood: Young person experiences caring neighbors. • Caring School Climate: School provides a caring, encouraging environment.

The resiliency movement has fostered the development of certain skills shown to be effective in helping youth deal successfully with adversity. According to Bonnie Bernard in The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework: From Research to Practice, "Resiliency research documents the characteristics of family, school, and community environments that elicit and foster natural resiliency in children (Bernard 1991)," altering or reversing potential negative outcomes. Personal resiliency builders include the ability to form positive relationships.

Tellingly, there is also evidence of the importance of caring friends and peers in school and community environments in the development of resiliency among youth.

Risk and Protective Factors
Identification of risk and protective factors has lent tremendous insight into under what circumstance young people are most likely to make choices that jeopardize their health and safety. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), risk and protective factors can affect children at different stages of their lives. At each stage, risks occur that can be changed through prevention intervention provided by family, school, and community. An important protective factor cited by NIDA is the establishment of strong bonds with institutions.

Similarly, "Building Protection: The Social Development Strategy," published by Channing Bete Company, Inc., lists "Bonding — strong, attached relationships with adults who hold healthy beliefs and clear standards for young people (Channing Bete Company, Inc. 2004)" as a strategy for battling risk factors that relate to such problematic adolescent behaviors as alcohol and other drug use, delinquency, dropping out of school, becoming pregnant, and violence.

Formal Versus Informal Mentoring

Essentially, there are two types of mentoring, formal (or "planned") mentoring, which tends to be community and school-based programs where young people are matched with an adult or older student, and informal (or "natural") mentoring, reflected in relationships that occur outside of formal programs through friendship, collegiality, teaching, coaching, and counseling, for example.

While the preponderance of past research on the outcomes of youth mentoring have focused on formal programs, recent Teens Today research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) points to the enduring efficacy of informal approaches, such as those intrinsic to camp communities.

What We've Learned

Teens who identify at least one influential, "natural" mentor in their lives report that they have a higher sense of self and are more likely to take risks that affect their lives positively.

In the study, 46 percent of teens with a mentor reported a high sense of self versus 25 percent of teens who did not identify a natural mentor in their life. Additionally, teens with mentors reported that they are significantly more likely than teens without mentors (38 percent versus 28 percent) to challenge themselves by taking positive risks, such as joining an athletic team or volunteering to perform community service. Notably, more than half of teens (56 percent) say the absence of a mentor would negatively affect them.

The study also reveals that the breadth and depth of mentoring—the number of mentors teens have or the range of topics they can discuss with a mentor—significantly influence decisions young people make around drinking, drug use, and sex.

Teens' Sense of Self Higher With Mentor
According to the study, 35 percent of teens with no mentor have a low sense of self (versus 12 percent of mentored teens). Teens Today research identifies sense of self as teens' self-evaluation on their progress in three key developmental areas: identity formation, independence, and peer relationships. High sense-of-self teens feel more positive about their own identity, growing independence, and relationships with peers than do teens with a low sense of self. They are also more likely to avoid alcohol and drug use. Teens struggling with those developmental areas, on the other hand, are more likely to drink, to use drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine, and to cite boredom and depression as reasons to have sex. They also note a greater susceptibility to peer pressure when making choices.

Additionally, teens with mentors are significantly more likely than those without mentors to also report frequently feeling happy (94 percent versus 86 percent) and less likely to report regularly feeling depressed (24 percent versus 31 percent) or bored (66 percent versus 75 percent).

Mentoring Influences Positive Risk-Taking Behavior
The study reports that teens with no mentors are significantly more likely to shy away from positive risk-taking than are their mentored peers (51 percent versus 31 percent).

Earlier Teens Today data reveals that teens who take positive risks (Risk Seekers) in their lives, their schools, and their communities are 20 percent more likely than teens who do not take positive risks (Risk Avoiders) to avoid alcohol and other drugs and 42 percent more likely to avoid drinking because of concerns about academic performance. Many of these teens are also more inclined to delay intimate sexual behavior.

Breadth and Depth of Mentoring Has Bearing on Teen Decisions Around Drinking, Drugs, and Sex
The breadth and depth of the mentoring a young person receives also correlates strongly with decision-making. For example, teens who report high levels of mentoring—those who can talk with a variety of people about a wide range of topics—are significantly more likely than those who report low levels of mentoring to be "Avoiders" of alcohol, other drugs, and early sexual behavior (69 percent versus 64 percent). And, among teens who have reported using alcohol or marijuana, those with high levels of mentoring said initiation of such behavior was significantly later than did teens with no or low levels of mentoring.

Additionally, teens with a high level of mentoring took more positive risks (48 percent versus 29 percent); reported a higher sense of self (59 percent versus 36 percent); and reported lower levels of depression (21 percent versus 26 percent). Finally, "high mentored" teens are significantly less likely than "low mentored" ones to have driven a car under the influence of alcohol (13 percent versus 26 percent).

To Whom Do Teens Look as Mentors?

The Teens Today report reveals that teens rank family members, friends, teachers, counselors, and coaches among the most influential people in their lives. The characteristics young people tend to ascribe to them include trustworthy, caring, understanding, respectful, helpful, dependable, fun, compassionate, and responsible. Being a good listener and offering good advice were also seen as key skills of successful mentors.

Decision-Making Differences Between Campers and Noncampers

When sorting the data by those who report attending a summer camp versus those who say they have not, some interesting observations can be made. For example, young people who participated in camp are significantly more likely to report being highly mentored (37 percent versus 23 percent), taking positive risks (48 percent versus 30 percent), and having a high sense of self (53 percent versus 40 percent).

In addition, these young people are significantly less likely to say they:

  • Drink alcohol (26 percent versus 36 percent);
  • Drive after drinking alcohol (14 percent versus 23 percent);
  • Smoke marijuana occasionally or more often (8 percent versus 18 percent); and
  • Have had sexual intercourse (29 percent versus 40 percent), had oral sex (29 percent versus 39 percent), or engaged in other sexual behavior (19 percent versus 26 percent).

In the aggregate, young people who have not spent time at a summer camp are twice as likely as those who have to report that they are Repeaters, as opposed to Avoiders, of destructive behaviors (8 percent versus 16 percent).

A Call to Action

It is common, in this day and age, to believe that true heroes no longer exist for our children. What a sad commentary on a society at a time when heroes are more important than ever. During adolescence, boys and girls reap clear and consistent benefits from the active involvement in their lives of caring, supportive adults. Their letters bear witness to that. Our challenge is to encourage, or perhaps simply reinforce, mentoring behaviors of camp staff, creating a call to action—a campaign for heroes, of sort—to invest time and energy into young lives in need of mentoring.

Our counselors can indeed make an important difference in the lives of their campers. We need now only to convince them.

Teens Today Study Methodology 
The Teens Today 2006 Study involved both qualitative and quantitative phases. The study was initiated with a series of twelve focus groups held in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and St. Louis, conducted on successive evenings March 13-15, 2006. The study also included a series of in-depth interviews (IDIs) with teens in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and St. Louis.

The results of the focus groups were used to instruct development of the quantitative research, a selfadministered survey conducted at 40 schools across the nation. The study involved a weighted total of 3,312 students overall to reflect a proportionate distribution of high school and middle school teens. The survey was administered in May and June 2006.

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Bernard, B., MSW. (1991). The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework: From Research to Practice.
Channing Bete Company, Inc. (2004). Building Protection: The Social Development (Accessed Oct. 20, 2007). (2005). America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being. U.S. Department of Justice. americaschildren (Accessed Oct. 20, 2007).
Henderson, N., M.S.W.; Bernard, B., M.S.W.; and Sharp-Light, N. (1999). Fostering Resiliency in Children and Youth: Four Basic Steps for Families, Educators, and Other Caring Adults. Resiliency in Action: Practical Ideas for Overcoming Risks and Building Strengths in Youth, Families, and Communities.
Herrera, C. School-Based Mentoring: A Closer Look, Public/Private Ventures.
Jekielek, S. M., M.A.; Moore, Kristin A., Ph.D.; Hair, Elizabeth C., Ph.D.; and Scarupa, Harriet J., M.S. (2002). Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Youth Development, Child Trends Research Brief.
Jekielek, S. M., M.A.; Moore, Kristin A., Ph.D.; and Hair, Elizabeth C., Ph.D. (2002). Mentoring Programs and Youth Development: A Synthesis.
MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership. (2004). The Urgent Need for Mentoring Research.
Preventing Drug Abuse Among Children and Adolescents: Risk Factors and Protective Factors, National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006.
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Search Institute (2005). 40 Developmental Factors. (Accessed Oct. 20, 2007).

Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about SADD or the Teens Today research, visit For more information about Stephen's work, visit www.

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2008 All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.