The Peer Project – Youth Mentoring Youth

Youth Assisting Youth has been the Trillium Chapter’s Charity of Choice for the last three years.  We thought that a profile on their youth mentoring program “The Peer project” would be an excellent fit for the volunteer themed issue of Forum, as they make use of a formal matching process to pair mentors and mentees to ensure a perfect fit. 

Preeti was nervous. The 24-year old sat in her car in the driveway of a stranger’s house, wondering what she had gotten herself into. When she had initially signed up to be a volunteer youth mentor with the Toronto-based agency The Peer Project – Youth Assisting Youth (YAY) a month and a half earlier, part of her had wondered if this day would ever come – the day when she’d meet her eight-year-old mentee, Candy, for the first time.

The caseworker for Preeti’s match, Carol, pulled up into the driveway. Slowly Preeti stepped out of her car and she and Carol walked to the front door and rang the bell. Although she didn’t know it at the time, she had embarked upon a journey that would permanently alter her life.

The Peer Project has paired kids like Candy with youth mentors like Preeti for 37 years. Originally formed under the name Youth Assisting Youth in 1974, the agency was created by a group of concerned parents, teachers and police officers in response to rising levels of juvenile delinquency in the Scarborough area of Toronto. Today, the Peer Project remains unique amongst other mentoring agencies in the Toronto area because it matches youth with youth – specifically at-risk and newcomer kids aged 6-15 with youth aged 16-29.  This distinction may seem minor on paper, but it is crucial in building real relationships and relatable connections that last.

The agency’s careful and methodical matching process also distinguishes it from the flock. Children are referred to the agency through schools, social workers, doctors and other channels and paired with a volunteer mentor, who is recruited by the agency in person or online. Each prospective mentor and mentee receives a home assessment from a caseworker. Then mentors must complete a police and personal reference check and mandatory training. Finally, once all of this is completed, the caseworker arranges a match visit between the mentor and mentee. Mentees must sign up for a minimum one-year commitment and spend three hours a week with their mentee.

The intensive vetting process also helps pull out personal details that contribute to an effective match. Preeti is a second-generation Canadian who largely grew up in India, and Candy’s family had recently immigrated to Canada from China. As someone just learning English, Candy was feeling isolated at school, and Preeti could tell that she longed for more friends.

“When I met Candy, I felt for her when she told me (about her school struggles),” Preeti says. “Kids made fun of me for everything when I first moved to Canada – the food I ate, the clothes I wore. Kids can be so catty. And the worst part is that you desperately want to fit in, but you can’t because no one understands you.”

Slowly and surely, Preeti and Candy started to get to know each other during weekly visits. Candy was initially shy and withdrawn. They began to spend half their visits on schoolwork and English comprehension, and the other on activities Candy loved, like going for ice cream. The Peer Project also provides a variety of activities for mentors and mentees, as well as the children on its 400+ waitlist – everything from sports events to trips to the Science Centre and the ROM – so Preeti and her mentee were able to take advantage of these opportunities too. “She started to enjoy hanging out with me because we did things that made her comfortable and happy,” Preeti says.

Daniel, another Peer Project mentor, experienced similar struggles when he first began spending time with his mentee Nick five years ago. Nick was 15 and Daniel was 21. “When we first met, Nick was extremely quiet,” he says.

Nick’s reserved nature also made Daniel realize that he would have to read between the lines, especially during times when his mentee needed support. “He began to hint at things he was experiencing and see how I’d react to them – and I realized this was his way of asking my advice,” he says.

About six months into their mentorship, Nick told Daniel that he had a knife and had brought it to school with him that day. The knife had remained hidden in his coat.

“I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this, but I felt it was because he was testing – is this acceptable, or not acceptable?” Daniel says.

Daniel consulted his case coordinator, who advised him to raise the issue with Nick’s parents. He ruminated on the best way to inform the parents without making it seem like a betrayal to Nick, and ultimately arranged a meeting for himself, Nick and Nick’s mother a week after Nick’s confession.

“We ended up handling it in a way where I told his Mom, ‘I don’t think he should receive punishment for this, because he’s been honest and come forward,’” Daniel said.

While it took time for Nick to trust Daniel again, Daniel says their relationship is now stronger than ever.

“I think the interesting thing about being a mentor is that I’m trying to balance a sense of paternalism with a sense of friendship,” Daniel says.

“I think I made the right choice. I learned that at the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for him.”

Preeti and Candy also experienced a turning point in their relationship during the Peer Project’s annual Youth Summer camp last August. From the moment they arrived, Preeti began to sense their connection was deepening.

“I started to notice – whatever I did, Candy was right there by my side,” she says. “She was up for trying anything –even things that scared her—as long as I did them too.”

On the last day, Candy was writing “fake tattoos” – words in Mandarin – in pen on the other camper’s arms. She wrote some words on Preeti’s arm. Preeti asked what the words meant.

“She said they meant ‘I love you,’” she says.

A year into their mentorship, Preeti says Candy has made amazing strides. She is chatty and outgoing, unafraid to express her opinion, with an ever-widening circle of friends. She is eager to learn and throws herself into her English studies without hesitation.

“I’m in complete awe of her,” Preeti says. “She inspires me because she has grown up so quickly, without fear.  She’s helped me grow up too – I feel a lot more responsible, better at prioritizing. I never thought I could learn so much from someone younger than me.”

For Daniel, working with Nick has helped him develop his own sense of patience and humility. In becoming a good mentor, he’s also become a better person.

“When we first met, I used to sweat the small stuff a lot with Nick. I think I was really trying to be the ideal role model for him, and that didn’t come across as genuine,” he says.

“It was much easier for me to be myself and just expose him to my real human side. That was the best way to connect with him, rather than trying to be perfect all of the time.”

The Peer Project currently has a waitlist of over 400 kids like Candy and Nick, who are struggling to find their place in the world and are desperately in need of a supportive presence in their lives. If you know someone who has what it takes to be a mentor, please email [email protected]. For more information about the agency and its work, visit www.yay.org.