Sweet Potato Mentorship

Mentoring is like sweet potatoes

I got a workout last Friday—it was time to harvest the sweet potato crop whose vines had provided a jungly groundcover in my front flower bed from April through August. In September, though, those suckers started getting out of hand. They were snaking out onto my sidewalk and aggressively tugging on my house’s brick wall.  I alternately ran and tiptoed through their webby maze on the way to the mailbox, imagining that one would grab me by the ankle and string me up! (Kind of like all those cheesy horror shows).

It was time to pull out the man-chete and hack through the foliage to see if they had made anything good, so I invited two of the teens in my area that I think are awesome over to help.  I lured them with the promise of sweet potato fries and one of them actually helped dig the potatoes. The other poked the dirt. They were both good company.

As I tried to clear the bed, I was slightly irritated by the abundance of vines. It seemed like such a waste of energy for the potato plant to make such giant leafiness! But of course, the potatoes couldn’t grow without them. The leaves are a mangled mess, but they sure make some nice root veggies.

This process kind of reminded me of my style of mentorship—maybe a little disorganized, informal?

Now I know academic studies have shown there is a huge benefit from formalized mentorship programs, like Big Brothers/ Big Sisters when it comes to creating positive outcomes for “at risk” youth who are mentored. By the way, no one really knows what “at risk” means, but many use it to mean at risk of dropping out of highschool. Some of the factors that increase that risk are teen parenthood, substance abuse, criminal behaviors, lack of self-esteem, and about a thousand others. (See the study on the value of mentorship called The Role of Risk here.)

Anyway, the point is—studies say that formal mentorship programs reduce the risk of dropping out, and increase the instances for a load of other good things like school, mental health, problem behavior and health (DuBois & Karcher, 2005; Rhodes, 2002; Zimmerman, Bingenheimer & Behrendt, 2005).

Here’s what I found exciting though: It’s not just formal programs. Any regular meeting with a caring adult helps! This is good news for me since I like a more organic, slightly less restrictive approach…and maybe that would suit you better as well.

So sweet-potato style totally works. According to Mentor.com, “A mentor’s main purpose is to help a young person define individual goals and find ways to achieve them.

By sharing fun activities and exposing a child to new experiences, a mentor encourages positive choices, promotes high self-esteem, supports academic achievement and introduces the young person to new ideas.”

An informal mentorship can do any and all of the same things that a formal plan can do—which might include helping with homework or school projects, casting a vision for career goals and aiding in taking steps to achieve them, supporting choices that lead to mental and physical health, and just being a general sounding board.


So that’s it, I just want to encourage you to be a mentor and get a mentor—even if it’s just a messy, unplanned weekly hangout session with a couple of cool kids in your neighborhood. It might be that you’ve got a listening ear or a helpful piece of info that they’re in need of right now. Or maybe they have one for you!

Mentoring is like sweet potatoes. The tops may be all wayward, but get going and those relationships are gonna yield some pretty sweet potatoes after a while.

What about you? Have you ever been a mentor or mentee? What kind of impact did your experience have on you?


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterGoogle+Pin on PinterestEmail to someone

1 Comment

  1. Kate Matthews

    Have experienced the very same. Was a Academy Head Girls Dean and things can be messy deliciously productive all at the same time… Sometimes.

    Like the whole “planting” illustration though, there’s the digging, prepping, watering, weeding, wrestling those vines and harvesting those Potatoes ( so to speak) before that mentoring relationship ever sees any wonderful sweet “fries” !!! Just sayin’

Leave a Reply