Mentoring: A Cost-Free Way to Leave a Rich Legacy & Make a Difference

Want to feel good and do something positive? Become a mentor. 

Mentors come in various guises. They might wear a baker's toque and apron, a first responder uniform or a stethoscope around their neck. 

Or they might write on a chalkboard diagramming sentences, work in a lab to find a cure for cancer, carry a paintbrush and drawing paper, pluck a stringed instrument or bang a drum. 

Those of us who have years of experience or skills that we can share with younger generations can be mentors. It is an important way to pass on our wisdom and make a difference in a young person's life.  

Among the best pools of mentors are those of us who are age 55-plus, in some cases retired with time on our hands, a belief in giving back and a desire to leave a positive legacy. 

We are not talking about money, which most people associate with leaving a legacy. Truth be told, each of us leaves behind a little part of ourselves whether through money, property, a business, art and other objects. Mentoring is about passing on the intangibles such as our values, ideas and skills. 

Margaret, who has written ad nauseum about how much she enjoys working with kids, did an afterschool mentoring project in a St. Louis City charter school with underserved 8th and 10th grade girls. Some were A students in academics and D- students in life skills. There were four mentors assigned to each grade of 8 through 12. To offer some of the basics of life, the resounding message was this: work hard and do things right and you will succeed. 

The goal was to help the girls learn skills to move on after high school with weekly sessions that focused on: interviewing, resume writing, manners, first impressions, public speaking, communication skills (verbal/non-verbal/written), diversity, social media, current affairs, college/employment applications, applying for scholarships and more. 

It was also a lesson in trust. As mentors we said we'd be there, and we did show up. At first, many of the girls had a taciturn aloofness belying an intuitive kindness, which emerged once they got to know and trust us and work with the mentors. 

The rewards of these mentorships were evident. Many of the girls were able to find good summer jobs and internships, get into college with practice writing a good resume, interviewing and writing essays (areas in which Margaret's writing and editing expertise were beneficial),  learning proper decorum--shake hands when you meet someone and look them in the eye, and how to dress for a job interview and eventual job. 

There were lectures by professionals on such topics as  drugs, sex/pregnancy and bullying. There was a cooking class hosted by a top local caterer designed to promote healthy eating; a makeup expert, who worked for Mary Kay Cosmetics. She discussed how to buy and properly apply makeup. She handed out samples. 

Our own children had mentors as well which helped in their choosing a career path. Margaret's eldest son had mentors in the music world who made an enormous impact on his decision to go into the classical music business. Her younger son was mentored by some of today's top jazz musicians which propelled him into the jazz world as a performer. Her daughter was mentored by a drama teacher in high school who encouraged her to pursue a college degree in theater, and she did.  

Barbara's daughters had mentors too. Her oldest had a teacher in high school who encouraged her to join the Model U.N. as a photographer and editor of its newspaper, which took her to the Hague two years in a row. He also mentored her in photography, and she spent one summer at a Maine workshop doing so. 

This same daughter spent a summer interning at a Danny Meyer restaurant pursuing her love of baking, working under the main pastry chef. She learned a tough lesson in doing hard almost grueling and not glamorous work. And she had a mentor in someone who encouraged her to enter a certain program at her college. 

Her younger daughter had an interest in psychology from high school and was fortunate to be mentored by the school's psychology teacher. 

Barbara, who has done a lot of volunteer work at her college, has loved meeting young women there and sharing her passion for her journalism field. She has also given lectures about her profession on the high school and college levels. She loves answering questions about how to get started in its different areas, from newspapers to magazines and web work. She also "gave" some work to a couple's one daughter when she was out of a job. Barbara shared some stories to write, paid her and helped mentor her about crafting them for one of the magazines that she edited. 

What can you do to start? Sign up for an hour or two a week with some organization and try it. 

If it's not for you, shift gears. Yet, if you start, building trust with one young person or a group, opting out can wound them. So, test the waters carefully. Here are some pointers of how to be a mentor and what to consider before you take the plunge: 

  • Be sure you want to make the commitment and can stick to it. Don't disappoint a mentee if you are too busy to be consistent. It's a big responsibility but one that will reward you in so many ways. Remember: you are a role model; act like a good one.
  • Consider the time you have available. If you have a busy workload, you must be realistic and honest about this, so no one is disappointed. Your mentee will count on you to be there when they need you, although the needs of different mentees will vary. Research also shows that young people can have worse outcomes when mentors cease their relationships early or miss scheduled meetings.
  • Which age group do you want to mentor? For example, a child is likely to require more mentoring time than a young professional. Maybe you enjoy interacting with older kids or young adults if time is limited.
  • Make a choice. There are mentoring organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and others. Google them. Go to your child's school and ask if you can help in some way. Perhaps you play the piano and can help with the school pageant. Maybe you paint and could be an aide in an art class. Ask at your church or temple. Industry forums, social networking websites and blogs are all great places for starting conversations with people who may need mentoring.
  • You must make time to fill out the paperwork, get fingerprinted and have a background check. It's required and it also is the first step in making the commitment. This can be a pain, cost money and not be easy to get to the agencies that do this, if it has to be done in person. You might encounter long lines when you do.
  • Be prepared to train. This can be anything from a one-time three-hour session to a few sessions but is a necessary component to become a good mentor.
  • Hone your listening skills and use "I" messages when communicating to show that you are listening. Don't impose your ideas or values on the mentee.
  • Know that mentoring involves give and take. A good mentor encourages independent thought and asks questions that can help their mentees discover new things. More learning occurs when people actively participate in their own decision-making process.
  • Nix the judgements and criticisms and have realistic expectations. Be positive but not too over the top where it sounds insincere. It's important to consider the mentee's background, culture and age. They might not share all your same values or rules. If a mentee is perpetually late, find out why. Perhaps they don't live near a subway or bus and have to walk far to catch transportation. Maybe they get out of school late and are hungry after so stop to get a snack. In this case you can offer to provide a snack in exchange for them being on time.
  • Don't force the relationship if the chemistry isn't right. It takes time and nurturing, like growing something new in your garden.
  • Remain flexible and know when it's best to change the rules. Mentor and mentee need to set the pace and together find the right rhythm.
  • Make it fun. This is a time to laugh, find fun ways to share your skills, rather than make it so serious and boring! 

Many children and young adults who have been mentored say it put them on the right path to a more successful future. Just think about how terrific you'll feel about this knowing you played a part in making someone else's life more directed, a little bit better and possibly a lot more enriched. 

Here are some famous folks who mentored fellow celebs

  1. Denzel Washington helped launch the career of the late Chadwick Bosman 
  1. Jane Fonda recommended Merle Streep for roles after they met on the set of "Julia" where Streep said Fonda gave her on-set guidance 
  1. Steve Jobs mentored Mark Zuckerberg 
  1. Oprah Winfrey was mentored by her 4th grade teacher 
  1. Dr. Martin Luther King was mentored by Benjamin E. Mays 
  1. Henry David Thoreau was mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Feel free to share your mentoring stories with us.





  • Steven

    Loved this blog!
    One on the most rewarding jobs I had in my career was that of a teacher. For those 50+ mentoring is extremely worthwhile, a great way to leave a legacy, and a tangible way to give back to the community.

  • Audrey Steuer

    Excellent! Thank you!

  • MLF

    Wonderful blog! So important to give back!!!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published