National Mentoring Month Spotlight: Partners with Youth for Disabilities by Sam Steed

To celebrate all abilities, MMP reached out to Partners For Youth with Disabilities to examine how they approach their exceptional work. Kristin Humphrey, PYD’s Mentoring Director,  spoke with us about PYD, the challenges they face, and how other mentoring organizations can follow their lead in ensuring the accessibility of mentoring.

1. What are some of the unique challenges PYD faces compared to more traditional mentoring organizations, and how do you go about solving them?

Partners for Youth with Disabilities serve youth ages six to twenty-four with a broad range of disabilities, throughout Massachusetts. PYD’s cornerstone program, Mentor Match, was founded in 1985 at a time when mentoring was gaining mainstream attention as a way to support at-risk youth. Despite the attention given to the field, youth with disabilities were overlooked and excluded from mentoring efforts. By focusing specifically on youth with disabilities, PYD became–and remains–a leader in Massachusetts and the nation. 

One unique challenge PYD faces is the broad range of mentees, in terms of age and abilities. In order to best support our population of mentees, we make sure to learn about other resources in the community to further support their goals, including but not limited to: disability commissions, independent living centers, and nonprofits focused on self-advocacy and transportation supports. Other challenges specific to our population, in light of the pandemic, include that for many young people with disabilities, COVID-19 posed an even greater risk due to the high-risk nature of many health conditions and disabilities.  Many people with disabilities and their families need to eliminate risk, meaning less interaction with others, even as the rest of society begins to open. Our population will continue to be isolated for an extended period to time, likely until a vaccine is widely disseminated. As such, it is critical for us to have strong online programming in place and flexibility in how our programs are offered. 

Another unique aspect of our programming is the effort we make to be intentional about recognizing disability mentors.  PYD runs the National Disability Mentoring Coalition and as part of this, each year, we put out a call for mentors to recognize in the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame. This year, we are seeking  nominations for the Class of 2020 of the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame (HOF) to recognize individual mentors and organizational programs directly or indirectly supporting racial justice, disability justice, and COVID-19 related issues impacting the disability community. This is an important time to support and amplify the impact of these mentors and mentoring organizations and we are pleased to have the opportunity with the Class of 2020 to do just that. If you’d like to nominate a mentor or organization, you can do so here! 


2. What are some of the steps you've taken to ensure accessibility remains a priority during the pandemic?

Our efforts to ensure that our matches were spending quality time doubled during the lockdown and we intentionally increased efforts in match support in terms of resources and frequency. To that end, in response to COVID-19 and the public health recommendation for physical distancing, the mentoring team has put together a list of remote activities for matches to engage in to help strengthen connection. This has been a  living, breathing document that the team updates as we learn new ideas and hear about creative ways that matches are staying connected. In our monthly newsletter, we have asked matches to submit creative ideas and we share the updated resource guide each month. PYD also has put together a comprehensive, anti-racist resource kit and COVID-19 Resources Guide which has been distributed to staff and matches. It is continuously updated and shared every month in the newsletter along with the remote resource guide. 

Throughout the pandemic, we have converted a number of our traditionally in person events to a virtual format, including our largest event: Mentor Appreciation Night. On November 12th, 2020, PYD hosted our first virtual Mentor Appreciation Night and honored 5 awardees--the Mentor of the Year, LENS rising star, Rayleen Lescay Spirit Award, Chris Dunne Peer Leadership award and The Greg Dees & Anita McMahon Entrepreneurship award. The event was a live stream and included interactive opportunities for the audience to engage in the chat and reflect on how mentoring has impacted their lives. Following the event, PYD hosted an after party where participants had various opportunities for virtual activities and interactions including games, conversation, music and PYD information.

In order to ensure that our programs are accessible, during the pandemic we also surveyed participants to assess technology needs and secured laptop donations. Given that all of our events are currently online, we also reallocated staffing to provide more tech support to ensure access and engagement. We have created a guide for best practices around hosting virtual events to foster structure and accessibility for participants. Part of this involves having multiple means for engagement and activity choices (such as different breakout rooms). 


3. What is a step that other mentoring organizations in MA could take now that would improve their accessibility to individuals with disabilities?

There are a variety of steps that other mentoring organizations can take to improve accessibility to individuals with disabilities including but not limited to: asking about accommodations in the intake, targeted recruitment for mentors, training mentors on supports for youth with disabilities and designing activities with universal design for learning in mind. 

Additionally, for a limited time beginning in 2021, Partners for Youth with Disabilities is partnering with MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership to offer all youth mentoring programs in the U.S. full membership in the National Disability Mentoring Coalition (NDMC). As NDMC members, organizations can earn your Disability Mentoring Certification – a free training series on how to run inclusive and accessible mentoring programs. Organizations completing this certification will see it listed on their profile in The Mentoring Connector database and will see a greater reach and visibility in search results on The Mentoring Connector. The free certification process takes four months, during which time participating members are guided through a deep learning process around how to run a mentoring Program that is inclusive to youth, volunteers, and staff with disabilities. PYD also offers an online learning course through their LEARN platform to strengthen their mentoring programs inclusivity.


4. How has MMP supported you in the past, and how can we support your work in the future?

We are deeply grateful for the support of Mass Mentoring Partnership (MMP) which has enabled our program to learn, grow and thrive. MMP has supported PYD in a number of ways, including but not limited to: training opportunities, the ability to host an AmeriCorps Ambassador of Mentoring, funding support, recruitment support, networking opportunities, recognition opportunities such as the Heroes Among Us Award and advocating for mentoring as a field. 

We are always looking for support with targeted mentor recruitment to meet the diverse needs and preferences of our mentee pool. We also appreciate the opportunity to network and learn from the other wonderful programs across the state as well as cutting edge best practices in the field. BIG thank you to MMP for all that you do for the field, we appreciate you!

Sam Steed is the AmeriCorps Ambassador of Mentoring Communications and Network Associate at Mass Mentoring Partnership.