History has shown us that the current global COVID-19 pandemic — like the Spanish flu of 1918 and many other pandemics before it — will give rise to societal change, with both positive and negative results. It already seems clear that young people in our most vulnerable communities will bear the brunt of many of those negative changes.
The pandemic is shining a bright light on our country’s racial and socioeconomic inequities. Its devastating health outcomes are disproportionately affecting people of color and people living in poverty — and their children.
More parents of lower-income families are working in essential jobs — as grocery and delivery workers, healthcare providers, transit workers, military personnel, and first responders — that place them daily at elevated risk, in addition to preventing them from being with their children.
Grandparents and older relatives, often caregivers to young children in these at-risk communities, face a dilemma: They are at increased risk for illness but are called upon more urgently to provide support. In addition, children with single parents whose livelihood depends on constant exposure to these conditions face the possibility of growing up without a parent, or perhaps with a parent who will have significant health issues resulting from illness or trauma.
As schools remain closed, children whose situations are already fragile are having to go without the safety, structure, and additional adult support they generally find at school. Despite the best efforts of schools nationwide to remain connected and relevant, many of those that serve low-income communities have not been able to maintain their connection with and support for students during this spring’s closures. As a result, many young people have lost their most important social institution and lifeline.
Children need the right adult relationships to thrive. Youth services organizations — particularly organizations that offer adult volunteers as mentors, coaches, and role models — have long known that caring adults other than primary caregivers play a crucial role in helping young people grow up socially and emotionally well. In difficult circumstances, these relationships serve as buffers from stress and help children flourish despite their circumstances. Now is the moment to build the infrastructure for a stronger support system of adults outside the family for low-income children.
Yet the organizations and institutions that have traditionally provided this infrastructure are under threat right now. They lack the financial resiliency to withstand the current environment. These organizations need help to exist, and they need the resources to provide essential support.
It does take a village to raise a child, as the old saying goes, and our villages need more mentors. Mentoring is the single most important factor in preventing risky behaviors in youth. The National Mentoring Partnership found that young people at risk of not graduating high school who had mentors were 55 percent more likely to enroll in college than those who did not. However, one in three young people will grow up without a mentor.
Mentoring relationships have powerful positive effects on young people in their personal, academic, and professional lives. At its core, mentoring signals to a young person that she matters, is understood, and is not alone in confronting daily challenges. All children need and deserve the support and guidance that mentors provide. However, young people facing poverty and other forms of injustice are less likely to have a caring adult in their lives, outside their immediate family. As children get older, this disparity can translate to unequal educational, career, and networking opportunities, serving only to widen the economic inequality.
On the other side of this pandemic, whenever that may come and whatever it may look like, we need to become a village full of caring adults personally invested in the next generation — not just our own children, but all children, and especially those who will emerge without adult supports in their own families. We need to be ready and eager to help young people reach their fullest potential. We also have to be supportive of the social structures that have for centuries played such a key role in recruiting, training, and coordinating the mentors who help young people grow up healthy, educated, and independent.
If this pandemic leaves you wanting to do something meaningful to help strengthen and rebuild our nation, please step up for the young people who will face some of its most devastating losses. Volunteer your own or your organization’s expertise and support to ensure the strength of your local youth-serving organizations; lend your voice to the advocacy efforts locally and nationally in support of the nonprofits whose services have seamlessly supported your community, particularly the youngest and most vulnerable members. And if you have the capacity, look for opportunities to mentor the young people in your area whose future may be tenuous, but whose potential is limitless.