In the United States, more than 30 million children live in low-income households National Center for Children in Poverty.
Children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to develop a mental disorder than other children, meaning 40 percent of American children are at high risk of developing a mental disorder.
One way to improve children’s long-term mental health prospects is to provide reliable support and guidance.
A local nonprofit is doing just that, expanding beyond Clark County.
Great life advice uses trained community volunteers as mentors to improve the mental health of children from low-resource households. The program matches highly qualified volunteers with children who are referred to the program through organizations such as the Clark County Department of Community Services. Once a mentor is matched with a child, they offer support and spend quality time with them for a year, and usually longer.
The program was established in 2000 as a partnership between the Clark County Department of Community Services, Columbia River Psychiatric Services and other behavioral health provider in Clark County. For the past two decades, Columbia River Mental Health has served as the umbrella organization for the program.
Thanks to extensive research demonstrating the positive results of the program, several organizations and donors have provided funds to grow the program into a stand-alone non-profit organization.
The organization became fully independent on January 1, and now CEO and founder Elizabeth Higley is seeking to replicate the organization’s model beyond Clark County.
Documented positive results
For approximately 15 years, Great Life Mentoring has been documenting its findings to improve its model and demonstrate its effectiveness.
“In the mental health arena, demonstrating the impact is critical,” Higley said. “I developed a research element very early on within Great Life Mentoring that was intended to help sustain the organization because great ideas are everywhere, but only if you have proof of impact can you sustain your model.”
Higley’s long-term goal was to replicate it as an evidence-based practice in communities across the country. Improving the quality of the program through research is a big part of achieving that goal, Higley said.
“We are now in this exciting time where we are going to a deeper level of research and replicating the model,” she said. “All of this is one of the reasons why all long-term stakeholders have decided that it would be in the best interest of the model for this replication to make Great Life Mentoring its own non-profit organization.”
In 2014, Great Life Mentoring partnered with the University of Washington and the University of Illinois Chicago to conduct preliminary studies into the effectiveness of its program. Universities got interested because Great Life’s volunteer retention rate was 98 percent. The national average retention rate of volunteers for similar programs is 45 percent.
“They wanted to know, ‘What does Great Life Mentoring do that results in twice the retention rate of any other mentoring program?’ ‘ Higley said.
Additionally, Great Life Mentoring mentors stay with the children they are matched with on average four years, while the national average for similar programs is about 16 months, Higley said.
The preliminary studies showed that children who participated in the Great Life Mentoring program use mental health services to a greater extent later in life than children who did not participate in the program.
The studies concluded that the Great Life Mentoring model was an ideal candidate for broader replication, Higley said.
grants and donors
Following the results of those studies, the Wood Next Fund — the philanthropy of tech innovator and Roku founder Anthony Wood and his wife Susan — provided funding for a five-year randomized control study being conducted by the University of Great Life Mentoring in Illinois Chicago beginning this year Year.
Over the next five years, university researchers will study the impact of Great Life Mentoring on the mental health of youth from low-income families. This research will inform the organization when it begins expanding outside of Clark County.
“When the research is complete, we will implement the results of that research before Great Life Mentoring becomes more widespread,” Higley said.
The organization has already begun to expand outside of Clark County. It recently moved its offices from Columbia River Mental Health Services in Vancouver to downtown Portland.
The Firstenburg Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, and Mentor Washington also provided grants to facilitate the organization’s transition to becoming a standalone nonprofit.
“We also received more than 100 new donors who pledged over $100,000 to make the change,” Higley said. “Having that kind of community support is so inspiring. This work is great for the children, the mentors and everyone involved. We see the best in people.”
I’m looking forward to
When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, mentors were unable to meet with children in person, and they provided as much support as possible via phone and video conferencing. As the pandemic spread, more volunteers than ever before began joining the program.
“We actually had an excess of people wanting to volunteer and that’s very unusual,” Higley said. There are now 57 volunteer mentors at the organization.
“I am pleased to report that all of the mentors who have joined Great Life Mentoring during the pandemic have been supported and have honored their original year-long commitment,” Higley said.
The Holy Redeemer Catholic Church provided funds for Great Life Mentoring to hold a celebration at Oaks Amusement Park in Portland in May. The event will see many of the program’s mentors and children meet in person for the first time since the pandemic began.
“Mentors and children will be stress free that day,” Higley said.
Higley is also looking forward to reconnecting with mentors and children at the event.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I don’t see the kids that much anymore because I’ve been doing this behind-the-scenes administrative work. When we’re throwing an event and I see the kids, it’s so exciting for me. It’s so great to spend time with them.”