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Dallas Mentoring Program Embraces Texting, Social Media To Stay Connected With Mentees

Stella M. Chavez
Shatara Lemons and her mentee, Nataly Gutierrez, take a selfie inside Irving High School. Most of their interactions are via an online portal that prepares students for college. The Big Brothers Big Sisters initiative is called Mentoring 2.0.

Mentoring has always been about developing a one-on-one relationship. As technology has changed, so too has that relationship between mentor and mentee.

One of the country’s largest mentoring organizations – Big Brothers Big Sisters — has evolved to help professionals with busy lives and kids who like spending time online.

Beyond face-to-face

On a recent day after school inside the cafeteria at Irving High, dozens of mentors and students sit across from each other waiting for instructions. All of the students here are in AVID, a college and career readiness program. They’re also in Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Mentor 2.0 initiative.

One of the goals of Mentor 2.0 is to prepare kids for college. Mentors have to be college graduates and must meet with their mentees every six weeks.

Most of these students will be the first in their family to pursue college. Like Nataly Gutierrez, a junior at Irving High School. Her mentor, Shatara Lemons, is a Dallas police officer.

“What was the most valuable for you in your college experience?” Gutierrez asks.

“Time management,” Lemons responds with a laugh, “learning how to manage my time, get my work turned in.”

This kind of interaction is crucial for Gutierrez. She’s the oldest of four and says she always wanted a big brother or big sister.

“I can’t always express some things to my mom cause my mom, she dropped out of high school her freshman year,” she explains. “And so, sometimes I can’t always ask her about, ‘Oh, what do I expect in college because she didn’t even go to college.”

More frequent interactions

What’s different about this student-mentor relationship though is that it goes beyond traditional face-to-face meetings. In fact, most of the weekly interactions between Gutierrez and Lemons are online.

And that, Lemons says, is what really appealed to her.

“The program is good for me because I’m busy,” she says. “I work all the time, so…technology is awesome.”

The Dallas-area chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters was the first in the country to launch Mentor 2.0. Today, it’s in 13 cities around the country.

Gutierrez says she wasn’t sure the mostly online nature of this program would work.

“At first, I thought, ‘Well, this is probably not really going to help because she doesn’t really come but just once a month,’ and now I’m like, ‘I can text her, and we can contact each other.’ And it’s really helpful because I feel like I have a bigger sister.”

Their online interactions are guided by a curriculum that emphasizes going to college.

Freshman year, kids learn about setting goals and priorities, like making sure their homework is done. Sophomore year, they learn how to start looking for colleges. By 11th and 12th grades, students are learning what a college degree is worth and how to complete a college application or financial aid form.

Evolving with today's teenagers

William Chinn is president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Dallas. He says this online format helps reach more kids.

“We have most of our kiddos in South Dallas and most of our mentors in North Dallas. So the technology that we’re leveraging enables a mentor and a mentee that can be a little bit further apart these days to stay in touch through social media, through an email and a secure platform, and also have that one-on-one physical meeting once a month over dinner at a high school that the dinner attends,” he says.

Chinn says it was important for the 90-year-old organization to evolve, and meet kids where they’re at.

“These days, our kiddos are really comfortable getting on social media, and they still can make pretty rich emotional connections through those media, and we’ve been ignoring that for a while.”

Even though most of their contact is online, Lemons and Gutierrez have developed a strong bond. Lemons says she can relate to the challenges of growing up. Her mom was a drug addict, and her parents separated when she was young.

“I didn’t have a mentor growing up. I felt like I needed that mentor, that outlet, someone I could possibly come and talk to because you can’t always go to your parents. They don’t always understand. And to have somebody, an adult, second voice for someone, that was very important for me to possibly be that outlet for someone,” she says.

Lemons and Gutierrez have realized they have more than a few things in common.

Gutierrez says she wants to go to the Air Force, just like Lemons, who served for 10 years. And she wants to go to college to become a detective, something Lemons is currently studying.

“When I first met her, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ I was like, ‘She’s a mini me.’”

After their in-person meeting, the two take a selfie. And they agree to connect again soon. This time, online. 

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.