Reflections from the 2024 National Mentoring Summit

By NRPA's Mentoring Team | Posted on January 30, 2024

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Pictured (left to right): NRPA staff Olivia Peterson, Kent Hunt, Allison Colman and Cina Makres at the National Mentoring Summit in Washington, D.C.

January is National Mentoring Month and every year, the nation’s leading mentoring organization, MENTOR National, hosts the National Mentoring Summit in Washington, D.C. This event celebrates the power of the mentoring movement by bringing together mentoring practitioners, researchers, organizational and civic leaders, and visionaries who are dedicated to driving positive change and supporting young people. This year, 1,400 conference attendees (including more than 700 first-time attendees) converged for two days of conversation, learning and building connections. Four NRPA staff attended this year to connect with other park and recreation professionals and learn from a range of mentoring experts. Below are some takeaways from the event. 

From Allison Colman, NRPA Senior Director of Programs 

At the forefront of this year’s mentoring summit was a focus on well-being. Advancing well-being at the individual and community level requires a commitment to creating spaces where people experience safety, security, connection, belonging, dignity, mattering and purpose. One of the sessions I attended explored these strategies through the lens of supporting LGBTQIA+ young people. Led by Jonathan Echeverria (he/him/el) of QUEERSPACE collective and Melissa Garcia (she/they) of Rainbow Labs, Creating Inclusive Spaces for LGBTQIA+ Youth elevated the critical impact that mentors can have on LGBTQIA+ young people and the urgent need to create spaces built on acceptance, empathy, shared power and love.  

The speakers shared some statistics that stuck with me: 60 percent of LGBTQIA+ young people reported that they have felt discriminated against in the past year due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 41 percent of LGBTQIA+ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year — and young people who are transgender, nonbinary and/or people of color reported higher rates than their peers (2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People from The Trevor Project). The same survey also found that LGBTQIA+ young people who had access to affirming homes, schools, community events and online spaces reported lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who did not. Park and recreation professionals, in their role as community leaders and mentors, have the power to create affirming spaces and environments for young people. A few strategies that were shared included: 

  • Do no harm. At times, actions that are built on good intentions can create unintended consequences. Do not make assumptions about how a person identifies or what might be best for an LGBTQIA+ young person. Rather, focus on trust and relationship building, which takes time.  
  • Normalizing the use of pronouns. Affirming gender identity lowers the risk of attempting suicide. Don’t ask every young person for their pronouns off the bat, rather introduce yourself with your pronouns to create an environment that signals safety and acceptance.  
  • Co-creating ground rules for your spaces and programs with LGBTQIA+ young people. Establishing ground rules can help reinforce the values and expectations you have for staff, volunteers and participants.  
  • Little things aren’t so little. Use signs, flags and pins to show representation and acceptance.  
  • Representation matters, but it’s not the only thing. Having a caring, accepting and consistent adult in an LGBTQIA+ young person’s life can be just as impactful as having shared lived experience.  
  • Using privilege. For those who hold privilege and influence, use it for good. Advocate, challenge systems of oppression, and seek out opportunities to give power to others, including young people.  
  • Commit to learning and growth. This world is constantly changing and evolving. Everything is fluid and adults and leaders must accept that and get comfortable with change.  

From Olivia Peterson, NRPA Program Manager 

A thread throughout the mentoring summit was the importance of lifting up mental health through all elements of our work in the mentoring field. This includes our work with youth, helping them to feel comfortable expressing themselves and creating opportunities for them to safely explore their emotions. And for ourselves, allowing time for mindfulness and rest, whether you’re working in a rec center, managing a program or on the administrative side. As MENTOR’s CEO Jermaine Myrie said during the opening session: “Self-care affords us better caretakers and supporters.” In other words, ensuring that we are prioritizing and being deliberate about taking care of ourselves in turn allows us to take better care of others.  

This topic came up again during one of the sessions I attended on “Tips for Preparing Mentors and Staff to Support Youth Impacted by Misuse of Opioids and Other Drugs,” where speakers from iRT and the Leadership Foundation shared their research and work in this area. Throughout this session, the importance of providing support and stability to mentees who may be impacted by substance misuse came up repeatedly. Training mentors and providing them with resources to understand the science of addiction, being well-versed in trauma-informed approaches, and how to approach mentee relationships with an asset-based lens can all help to build trust and establish that positive relationship. And sometimes, simply creating an experience where the mentee can have a respite from other stressors in their lives and have fun is enough. Three resources that were shared include:

From Cina Makres, NRPA Program Specialist 

An additional theme at this year’s mentoring summit was youth power, which made me consider how we, as park and recreation professionals, can build youth power in our own mentoring programs. I had the opportunity to attend a session titled, “Building Youth Power in Mentoring Programs,” where Adelaide Moschler of MENTOR Independence Region shared more about what it means to build youth power in youth mentoring programs and the tools that can assist professionals as they strive to do so. Throughout the session, Moschler highlighted the importance of amplifying youth voice to encourage and empower young people to lead social change within their communities. As adults working with youth, we must focus on equipping young people with the confidence to become active collaborators and leaders in the community. A few strategies to build youth power that were shared during this session included:   

  • Establish youth positions on boards of directors 
  • Dedicate staff positions to youth  
  • Give youth the role of program evaluators  
  • Support youth’s leadership development  
  • Empower youth as agents for social change

To support this movement, it is essential that we shift from talking to young people to listening to young people instead. By actively listening to our young people, we can better understand their needs and identify actions that can be taken to provide support. Additionally, we must prioritize youth context. As adults working with youth, this means acknowledging young people’s response to the world we live in, including the stress-inducing events flooding our feeds daily. By acknowledging the different perspectives of youth, we are empowering them to dismantle the systems that negatively impact our communities.   

From Kent Hunt, NRPA Program Manager 

Attending the National Mentoring Summit was an extremely worthwhile and enriching experience. One thing that really stood out to me was the applicability of each of the sessions to the larger park and recreation field.  Yes, it was focused on mentoring, but the sessions covered topics like bullying, self-care, recruitment and STEM programming, which all play a part across programs and spaces in the recreation field. 

One session that comes to mind focused on the importance of storytelling to improve mentor recruitment. We talk about storytelling a lot in parks and recreation and the impact it can have on funding, but I never considered how storytelling can play a role in the recruitment of mentors (or seasonal staff, coaches, volunteers, etc.). The presenters from TeamMates Mentoring shared a storyboard for developing a “recruiting story” that focused on specific target groups the program was hoping to attract. This uniquely crafted story was built to resonate with the specific target group, such as mentors in rural communities or women in STEM, and identified action steps to get that story out in front of these groups. The presenters shared that by using storytelling to assist with recruitment, you help to create a connection to the organization and make the work real to the potential mentors (or future staff). As you prepare for your spring and summer programs, I invite you to give this concept a chance and you can begin crafting and telling stories to help you recruit mentors (and staff, too)! 

Overall, the mentoring summit left us feeling energized and excited to continue our work around promoting youth mentoring in the parks and recreation field. Learn more about the Mentoring in Parks and Recreation initiative by checking out our resources below! 

Further Reading: