This Is How I Want My Daughters to Find Their Own Path to Success

Artis Stevens, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, says the road to success looks different for every kid—but mentorship can help all of them get to it.

African American father and son outdoors together.

Sean Locke/Stocksy

Every morning, since preschool, my teenage daughters recite this affirmation, “Be smart, be strong, be kind, be you.” It’s a little moment my wife and I started in an effort to embed a sense of confidence, independence, and self-assurance as they took on the world each day. As they’ve gotten older, I find myself reflecting on the experiences and moments in my life that made an impact in defining what success looked like for me and how today, my daughters are charting their paths through their own experiences.

Finding my own way did not necessarily fit the beaten path. I come from a long line of preachers. Growing up, everyone around me assumed I was going to follow in my dad’s and granddad’s footsteps. Unsure of this myself, I asked my dad if I was going to become a preacher like him. My dad’s response has stayed with me: “Everyone has their ministry in this world. You have to find yours.”

When I graduated from college, I was still trying to find my ministry. I was set on going to law school until a mentor took me to an old playground in a public housing community I knew well. In fact, I had played on that very playground as a kid. At the end of our conversation, my mentor told me, “You can always go to law school, but you can’t always come home and transform the community that you grew up in.”

At that moment, something shifted for me. I realized that my ministry wasn’t necessarily the well-beaten path of a law degree. I would even go as far as to say that a single conversation is a big reason why I have spent my career in youth development and now serve as CEO of the nation’s largest one-to-one youth mentoring organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA).

Big Brothers Big Sisters was founded in 1904 as an alternative to the juvenile justice system to create greater equity for youth, so all kids can feel included in the promise of opportunity and a better life. Today, we’re still led by our foundational commitment to youth empowerment, helping young people define success for themselves so that they can walk the path of fulfilling their purpose with intention and integrity.

So how I help my daughters “find their ministries” is larger than just me and my wife directing their steps. We believe mentors and a community of support play an important role in empowering them to define success. This same belief holds true for Big Brothers Big Sisters. 

Mentoring Fosters a Greater Sense of Belonging

There are more than 43 million young people in America, and 16 million of them are growing up without a sustained mentor. Add to that, we’ve seen a 40 percent increase in the number of young people struggling with mental health conditions like depression, hopelessness, and isolation. Unsurprisingly, this imbalance only worsened during the pandemic, when 20 percent of the young people we serve reported losing contact with an important adult in their lives.

By contrast, 95% of BBBSA Littles with a regular mentor say that they have a sense of belonging, something that is crucial to one’s life satisfaction, mental health, and overall happiness. The “innovative intervention” of mentorship is especially crucial now so that we reach and support a new generation of children and young adults who are coming of age in a time of historic isolation and loneliness.

Mentorship also helps young people cultivate personal focus while also fostering a deeper sense of community – among youth who motivate each other to do better, and among adults, who can serve as “pulse checks” for children who may be struggling emotionally.

A common mantra we tell our BBBSA mentors, or “Bigs,” is that the best relationships are authentic ones. You don’t need to have a specific title, a degree, or any special qualifications other than being compassionate, patient, and accepting. Because just like mentoring itself, a child will never ask that you be perfect, only that you be present.

Mentoring Inspires Career Exploration

Connecting a child or young adult with a mentor helps to widen that child’s circle of connections, oftentimes exponentially—opening a new world of networking and opportunity, regardless of whether they decide to enter college, the workforce, or military service. And those connections can be key to securing a brighter future. As New York Times columnist David Brooks explained, the relationships we form can be “a better predictor of upward mobility than school quality, job availability, community cohesion or family structure.” 

And this isn’t just for children. Young people ages 18 to 25 represent the fastest-growing population that BBBSA serves. This is driven by increased demand for workplace mentoring. Through career mentorship programs like Big Futures, Littles learn a number of professional and “soft” skills, including financial literacy, leadership, and public speaking. Consistent with mentoring’s reciprocal impact, while broadening horizons for young people, such programs have also been shown to help companies recruit and retain talented workers. In fact, workers who participate tell us they feel a greater sense of connection and purpose.

Mentoring, then, is that rarest of philanthropic investments: one that pays life dividends to the benefactor, the beneficiary, and all of society. It’s why I often say that more than changing the life trajectory of those directly involved, mentoring also helps us to foster a more inclusive, representative, and empathetic society.

Mentoring Creates a Path to Better Decision-Making

Mentors expose children to positive, caring relationships beyond the adults in their families and neighborhoods. It’s one of the central ways that mentoring can help expand a young person’s sights on what they can pursue and achieve. The connection and confidence that inspires can have a ripple effect in a young person’s life, providing a tangible incentive as they pursue their dreams. 

A recent study of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s programs shows that young people paired with a mentor were 29 percent more likely to explore college and were less likely to be engaged with the criminal legal system or use illegal substances. And among children and young adults in the Big Brothers Big Sisters network, 84 percent perform better academically than their peers who do not have a mentor. Mentoring organizations, then, are community anchors and connectors, helping to entrust more caring adults with this vital, lifesaving role.

Part of leading a network that touches lives in nearly 100 cities means that I travel a lot. And every day as I visit my colleagues in the field and see the transformative work they’re leading, I am reminded of the famous saying, “It takes a village.” 

It takes a village to support young people as they strive to reach their full potential. It takes a village so that even when young people might struggle to find their footing, we are there to pick them up and hold them even closer. And it takes a village to revive the best parts of us so that every child has what—and who—they need to not only discover their ministries but to also live out their purpose for the benefit of themselves, their communities, and all of society. That’s the power of positive mentorship—and when that happens, we all win.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles