by Melissa Mortimer
*Check out discussion questions after article
At the age of 60, with more than 30 years as a sustainability outreach and engagement specialist behind her, Jo de Vries sometimes felt old, irrelevant, and invisible.
“Many of my colleagues were in their 20s and 30s, and some seemed uninterested in listening to my suggestions and ideas,” she explained. “I really started to question whether I wanted to keep working in a career I’d loved.”
So, when she was asked to head up the Climate Action Ripple Effect (CARE) program in Vernon, B.C., she wondered if she was the right fit for a program that would bring teachers, high school students, and community mentors together to create climate-action projects in support of the City’s Climate Action Plan and UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The Capstone of Her Career
What happened next, according to de Vries, was “magical.” And it confirmed everything she’d come to believe about the importance of intergenerational collaboration in building more sustainable communities.
“Although I was nervous standing in front of my first class of Grade 11 students, I quickly learned that we had a great deal to offer each other. While I brought expertise, earned perspective, and passion, they came with their own insights, ideas, and a great deal of energy.”
“Seeing first-hand the passion students have for climate action and making real change totally reinvigorated me,” said de Vries. “Many of these students felt overwhelmed before starting the program, but during CARE they developed a sense of agency and knew they could make meaningful contributions to climate change.”
Along with 50 other community mentors, many of them seniors, de Vries was instrumental in enabling and encouraging that change. Working closely with students as they developed their group projects, de Vries coached them on community sustainability and engagement, project design and implementation, project display and presentation skills, how to navigate the challenges of working with different personalities, and how to share their ideas while considering other viewpoints and methods.
“I saw that most students greatly appreciated what mentors brought to the table. Now that they know how to harness this mostly untapped intergenerational power, they’ll be keener and more comfortable reaching out in the future.”
A Natural Fit
For retired teacher John Wilson, mentoring young people is both fun and rewarding.
“You don’t need to be a teacher to be a good mentor,” said Wilson. “Not all kids learn as well in a classroom environment so getting hands-on experience is really helpful for them.”
During CARE, Wilson worked with three “amazing” young people to help them design and create a scale model for a solar-powered water heater. As Wilson sees it, his role as a mentor is to listen to what the students want to achieve and help them find a way to make their ideas work.
“You need to know when to give help and when to get out of their way,” Wilson said. “You want to help them find their own path, even if you know what they’re trying to do won’t work. I can’t wait to do this again!”
Learning from Nature and Mentors
When Grade 12 student Camryn enrolled in the CARE program, she wanted to learn about the invasive species in her local wetlands. She reached out to her teacher, Rob Buchanan, at the AIAO (Awaken, Inquiry & Adventure Okanagan) alternative program at Clarence Fulton Secondary School in Vernon, B.C. AIAO educators believe that learning is a collaborative effort, involving not only teachers and students but also community members who serve as mentors.
Buchanan encouraged Camryn to contact Norbert Maertens of the North Okanagan Naturalists’ Club. A former teacher and longtime volunteer, Maertens met with Camryn and her cohorts and learned that they were interested in creating botanical salves and teas out of invasive plants.
“Norbert took us on a nature walk,” said Camryn. “He knew everything about all the plants, their history, and effects on the ecosystem. He really listened to us and gave us great, creative tips about how to use and prepare plants to make them into products.”
For Maertens, working with young people and seeing how eager they are to learn outside the classroom is always inspiring.
“It’s amazing how observant kids are if you allow them to be. They have the energy and the interest, and it can open many portals for them to find something they can do in their later life, like create a business,” said Maertens.
Camryn and her fellow students on the project ended up packaging and selling their CARE Botanicals at the CARE Summit and, with Maertens’ guidance, plan to continue developing more products made from invasive species.
Camryn’s advice for seniors who are considering mentoring but worry that young people won’t want to work with ‘old people’?
“There are certain young people who are excited about learning,” said Camryn. “They’re interested to learn from people who have the knowledge, no matter what their age.”
Mutually Beneficial Community Relationships
Community involvement through mentoring is a powerful tool for young people like Camryn, providing them with valuable opportunities to explore their interests, develop life-long skills, and build meaningful relationships as they take control of their own learning journey.
“There is so much knowledge and information out there that doesn’t get tapped into,” said Buchanan. “The more people these kids get exposed to the better. There’s so much discovery at the age of adolescence and we can give them a ton of experiences in a safe place experiences they can draw on for the rest of their lives.”
MENTOR Canada, a coalition of organizations that provides youth mentoring, works to build sector capacity to empower young people to reach their potential.
A 2022 survey showed that youth who were mentored report better outcomes than youth who were not mentored. They were more likely to report better mental health, feel a stronger sense of belonging, finish high school, and pursue further education.
Mentorship could be the key to increased career opportunities for youth, many of whom are struggling to connect with employment opportunities.
With the current youth mental illness crisis, mentorship could play a critical role in helping to increase young people’s sense of belonging, hope, and optimism for the future.
Young people who identify as LGTBQIA2S+, have a disability, or face one or more risk factors growing up, are in even more need of mentors.
A Meaningful Way to Give Back
de Vries, Maertens, and Wilson want to see more seniors stepping up to mentor youth in their communities, sharing their time and knowledge in a meaningful way.
“In 2022,” said de Vries, “CARE saw about 300 students work with almost 50 mentors to create 74 projects and events ranging from those that protect natural ecosystems, educate elementary students about climate anxiety, and explore the role mushrooms play in composting plastics. I’m overwhelmed by their creativity and proud to be part of what they accomplished. I consider CARE a big part of my legacy.”
Maertens said, “Our educational system is important, but the practical aspect is equally crucial and that is something older people can share. We need to hear their concerns and find out what is important to them. We can offer them a different perspective, one that can make a huge difference in their lives.”
Wilson finds the young people he’s mentored to be smarter and more thoughtful than his generation.
“They have a strong moral and ethical character,” said Wilson. “Frankly, they’re better people than we ever were.”
Next year, Camryn is off to the University of Calgary where she’ll major in English. She’s currently writing her first book, and is collaborating with another mentor to get it ready for publishing.
Melissa Mortimer is a writer and filmmaker from Vancouver, B.C.
- If you’re interested in becoming a mentor, Mentor Connector is a free online database that links volunteer mentors and youth to mentoring programs across our country.
- You don't need any special skills to become a mentor. All you need is an open mind and an interest in making a difference in the life of a young person between the ages of six and 30.
- You can mentor in person or virtually.
- Check out your local volunteer organizations that work with youth to see if they have mentoring programs.
The questions below will help stimulate discussion among family members, friends, groups of seniors, and with health care providers.
- Have you ever felt intimidated by younger people like Jo did standing in front of the class of Grade 11 students?
- Have you ever felt irrelevant or invisible in a situation with younger people?
- Do you find it difficult to talk with younger people?
- Have you ever been a mentor to a young person? If so, what was the experience like for you?
- What are some of the barriers today that prevent young people from succeeding at school and finding a career?
- Do you find that young people are less interested in engaging with older people and taking advice from them?
- Did you benefit from mentoring when you were young?
- Are you looking for an opportunity to give back to your community in a fun, meaningful, and productive way?
- What are some of the concerns you have about becoming a mentor?
- What are some of the ways you feel you could help young people succeed?
- Are you concerned that becoming a mentor would require too large a time commitment?
- Are you retired and looking for a way to keep active physically and mentally?
- What are your interests and hobbies? Would they translate to mentoring?
- What did you do for a living before retiring, and is that an area that you could explore with mentoring?