Youth Mentoring a Need in the Berkshires

Oct 9, 2013

Credit Railroad Street Youth Project

A recent editorial is putting focus on the need for mentoring programs in western Massachusetts.

Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of the Fourth Berkshire District is urging people to volunteer to mentor young people.

“No matter what your career is right now everybody has a mentor that they look up to, that they lean on," he said. "I have mentors in my current job."

Pignatelli argues mentoring programs can help solve growing social ills like teen pregnancy, drug abuse and dropping out of school. He says it’s even more important today with increasing poverty levels and kids being raised by single parents or coming home to an empty house after school.

“This was once a million dollar budget line item in the state of Massachusetts’ budget," Pignatelli said. "Last year we were successful in securing $350,000 of mentoring money.”

Pignatelli says the need is especially dire in the Berkshires, drawing numbers from the district he represents. He writes there are more than 300 children ages 5 to 17 living in single-parent households in poverty, of which only 11 are being served by a mentoring program. That’s less than four percent of the need being met, which Pignatelli says wasn’t always the case.

“Berkshire County had a Big Brothers Big Sisters program for a number of years," he said. "They went defunct, probably two, three years ago now.”

Following the departure of Big Brothers Big Sisters from Pittsfield, Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington remains the only organization partnered with the Mass Mentoring Partnership in the entire county. Jocelyn Vassos directs the organization’s apprenticeship and mentoring programs. She says her organization reaches out to schools and groups to match adults with youth based on shared interests.

“We had a young man in here who had been talking and dreaming about writing a comic book for a year," Vassos said. "We had a volunteer come in and had experience in motivating and experience in teaching writing. So we matched them up together and within maybe three months of the match the young person has written his comic book and he’s connected with people who are going to draw it.”

Vassos says transportation remains an issue in connecting with youth and potential mentors in the central and northern parts of the county. However, she says she has seen an increase in interested mentors over the past few years. Pignatelli says Railroad Street Youth Project has tried to fill the void, but its coverage isn’t wide enough.

“I can envision a good, solid program in south Berkshire like Railroad Street is doing, a solid program in central Berkshire based in Pittsfield and  a solid program in North County maybe based in Adams or North Adams," said Pignatelli.

Rich Greif is the Director of Marketing and Public Awareness for Mass Mentors. He points to a shortage of governmental and private funding and a lack of infrastructure as the reasons why there aren’t more programs in Berkshire County. But he says the biggest need is for more mentors, especially men. 

“There’s a big disparity between the youth that are being served," Greif said. "Nearly three-quarters of the youth being served are of color, yet the majority of mentors are not of color. While that doesn’t make a difference necessarily in the outcome of the relationship, it’s still something that as you can imagine parents would like to be able to offer to their child.”

Greif says the most recent Mass Mentoring Counts census shows the amount of youth served under its partnership blanket has grown by 7,000 to more than 30,000 as the number of partnered organizations total about 200 statewide, a jump of roughly 50 over the past two years.