Nebraska / Sept. 13, 2012 / by The Team

What started as an experiment in mentoring with 22 University of Nebraska football players has now become an extremely effective mentoring program helping school-aged children across Nebraska. 

TeamMates was started in 1991 by Dr Tom Osborne, the Head Football Coach at the University of Nebraska, and his wife, Nancy. After seeing a TV show about a man who was helping children at his old school graduate and go on to college, Nancy spoke to her husband to see what they could do themselves to help local children. 

Osborne explains that he “thought about the fact that we have this football team, 150 players that young people, for the most part, look up to, and I thought well, maybe we could harness some of that interest, some of that hero worship in a positive way.”

The next day he went to his team and asked how many of them would be able and willing to mentor a male junior high school student. “We had twenty-two hands that went up,” says Osborne, “and paired them with 22 seventh and eighth-grade boys in Lincoln Public Schools.”

The football players met with their mentees for one hour every week, and the whole group met once a month, getting together to play basketball and eat pizza. While these initial matches were not nearly as planned out as they are now, of those twenty-two students, twenty-one went on to graduate from high school on time, and 18 went on to pursue a college degree of some sort. 

From there, the idea grew and TeamMates now has “just under 6000 matches and our vision is to be at 10,000 matches by 2015,” says Executive Director Suzanne Hince. The program is in every school building in Lincoln, and in 110 communities across Nebraska, and into Iowa. 

TeamMates is structured such that local chapters, each with their own board, are able to best serve the children in their area. It ensures that the child’s needs are put first, without the organizational needs getting in the way of the mentoring itself.  

TeamMates is unique for several reasons. The time commitment for the mentor and mentee is just one hour per week, and it takes place in school. This allows for a long-term commitment from the volunteer mentor but it also ensures the children are in a safe and secure environment while they spend time with their mentor, and vice versa. 

“We want the children to be safe above all,” says Nancy Osborne, “so the school setting is good for that reason but it's also good because people can get off work for an hour or thirty minutes, whatever they have to do and they go to the school every week so it's the same place.”

The children themselves aren’t chosen by the program. “There's a building coordinator in each one of these school buildings and that building coordinator identifies those kids who have come forward and said they would like a mentor,” explains Osborne. 

“When students have that engagement from day one, it makes the match longer and it makes the match stronger over time because the student already has an investment in that relationship.”

Both the time commitment and the school environment make the program very appealing to volunteers. It requires only one hour a week from them and the school-based environment gives the mentor the support from the building coordinator and teachers. This helps them to learn more about the child’s academic life than would normally have been talked about. 

The program runs for the whole school year in which “there are usually about 35 meeting opportunities, about 35 weeks and if that mentor and mentee get together at least 25 to 30 times, we usually see some very positive and powerful synergies,” says Osborne. 

The importance of consistency and commitment within that time period is emphasized to the mentors before they even sign up to the program. Hince explains that they are “clear from the beginning when we match you, we want you to stay with the student through high school graduation.”

A good relationship is built on confidence and trust, which is achieved through a long-term commitment. “If on the other hand, somebody says they care about you and they're going to be there every week and they show up five times, it probably does more damage than good,” explains Osborne. “So we find that being faithful, being consistent, being persistent is very, very powerful.”

All of this careful thought and attention leads to much longer and more productive matches. Osborne explains that “our matches on average last about 3.6 years. The national average is less than one year for most mentoring relationships and that includes all the new matches that we form each year.” 

This means that TeamMates successfully establishes “an awful lot of matches that are in existence from third or fourth grade on through the 12th grade through graduation.”

Osborne himself poses the question that will be asked by most people in response to such apparently positive numbers: “does it really work?” TeamMates is committed to ensuring they know what results the mentoring programs are having so they use research by Gallup to follow their matches. 

In the five years they’ve been using Gallup to follow the matches, “we've found that some significant outcomes have resulted,” explains Osborne. “About 85% of the kids involved in these matches show a marked, significant improvement in attendance at school, which may in and of itself not seem like a big deal but if attendance improves, the odds of graduating from high school go way up.”

Further, there is a decrease in antisocial behavior, lower drug abuse and teen pregnancy rates, and academics and graduation rates go up. 

TeamMates is devoted to continuing its growth both in number of matches and in the quality of those matches. To ensure an even higher quality of match, they have developed a matching software tool that helps pair mentors and mentees based on their common interests, hobbies, and life experiences. This matching tool will help them “more than double the life of the match from the get-go,” adds Hince.

They also use Gallup’s research about each student and adult to determine their strengths. This allows the mentor to positively reinforce those strengths in the mentee’s mind, in a way that might never have been done before. 

TeamMates is determined to help children even past high school graduation, and in order to do that, they have hired a “post-secondary specialist who's focusing on our high school matches and making sure that mentors are equipped for helping students … take the ACT, fill out scholarship applications,” says Hince. 

They then help the mentor and mentee continue their relationship through college, giving them the emotional support they might need while adjusting to the very different post-high school environment, and even beyond, into a job after college. 

“We've been amazed that probably 70-80% of students would like to have a mentor in their life,” says Osborne, and TeamMates is providing exactly the kind of support that is most needed and wanted by students across Nebraska. 

The time a mentor spends with their mentee might “involve a number of activities. It may involve listening, it may be at times advising but above all, you have to first of all have a strong relationship, a good amount of trust, a good amount of communication, and that takes time,” says Osborne. 

That’s the essence of TeamMates: to provide the support and encouragement that will allow these young children to believe in themselves and in their own potential, helping them build their own future.

“There's an awful lot of unrealized potential. There's an awful lot of lives that end up on rocky shores because of some really bad decisions or there wasn't proper input or guidance at the right time and there's a lot of tragedy that could be averted. So we want to see the best possible outcomes.”

To learn more about TeamMates and find out how to volunteer as a mentor, please visit the TeamMates website, their Facebook page, or Twitter feed.