By Cory Booker, Photographs by Nigel Parry
Posted Date: October 23, 2012
It started for me one summer when was in college. Like most kids working their way through school, I needed to make money; I landed a job at the Onetta Harris Community Center in Menlo Park, California, working with teens from the city. I saw that just hanging out with these kids, talking with them about their daily lives, made a big impact. And that’s when I made the decision to dedicate myself to being a mentor.
I never would have received the opportunities I did without generations of mentors pitching in. My father was born in the Deep South to a single mother who couldn’t take care of him. It was the people in his community who took up a collection so he could go to college.
Any man in America today who has any degree of success has received a similar blessing somewhere along the line. People whose names we will never know made sacrifices so you and I could be where we are today. We drink deeply from a well of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig ourselves.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. The biggest threat to our nation is the wasting of our greatest resource—young people. We’ve gone from number one in the world to number nine in the percentage of kids graduating from college. There is no way we can be a leading democracy if we continue to lag in supporting our youth and lose too many to mediocrity or worse.
I’ve been mentoring young people for a long time, but lately my conviction has grown even stronger. Just spending 4 hours a month with a caring adult makes a huge difference to a kid; it drives up academic achievement and drives down unemployment, truancy rates, drug use, teen pregnancy, obesity—you name it.
Right now I’m mentoring one teenager, and I don’t try to teach him lessons about life. We go to the movies together. We grab dinner. That’s it—just 4 hours a month. Whatever you enjoy doing, you can bring a young person along with you. Kids absorb a lot more of your behavior than you realize: They notice if you smile at the person behind the counter or bus your tray after you eat. As James Baldwin wrote more eloquently than I ever could, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters is still the gold standard, but there are a lot of ways to become involved at mentoring.org. You can always donate money, sure. But 4 hours a month is worth a lot more than any check you could write.