The Power of Relationships: Mentoring Youth in Appalachia

Written by Angela McMann //

Mentoring is justice. It’s doing justice to youth who have been lacking positive adult role models for a variety of reasons.

There is a lot of research right now about brain chemistry after experiencing trauma in childhood. Much of that research has shown that youth who experienced trauma will experience other issues related to how their brain may function. This trauma can manifest in a variety of expressions that may come out as: misbehaving at school, unable to recall information, unable to connect or build relationships, anxiety, and many of the symptoms of ADHD. Youth who have had adverse childhood experiences may be living in a continued state of fight or flight brain response. This trauma can be held in a child’s system as they grow into adults, and can lead to higher rates of incarceration, higher rates of alcoholism, substance use, declining health, as well as continuing this cycle when they have their own children. One of the ways to help youth overcome traumatic experiences and help their brain rewire is a positive relationship with a caring adult, a mentor.

My specialty has been mentoring for the past 14 years in a rural community of Appalachia. I have seen the beautiful blossom of a relationship when you pair a young person who has been through some hard things but still has the openness and innocence of childhood and the willingness to make a new friend. Mentors are people who come to a place in their life where they feel that they can give back and they can share their gifts with someone else. Together a pair can make such a meaningful relationship where they will both reep the benefits of getting to know one another.  Our mentoring program provides youth ages six through 17 with positive adult role models to help them navigate life‘s challenges whether that’s learning how to read, learning to cope with loss, learning how to open a bank account, learning how to talk to a person of the other sex, learning how to work with technology, or learning how to deal with bullies and peers; our mentors are trained and prepared to help them tackle life‘s challenges.

Mentors give justice to youth who need someone to look out for them but someone who is not part of the judicial system or the school system or even their family. Someone who is just a friend who cares about them and puts their interest first. So often the youth in our program say that their favorite part of having a mentor is that they feel good about themselves or that they look forward to seeing their mentor when they are at school and they really don’t want to be there; it helps them get through the day. Mentors do justice to youth because they show them that they have value and that their voices are worth hearing and that even though they may want to hide in the shadows sometimes you have to be brave enough to step out and share yourself with the world.

I am humbled when I get to visit with one of our youth who has experienced violent crime in her past, tragic experiences in her family and home, and yet she smiles so brightly, she stands so tall, she looks you in the eye, and she tell you about her passion for doing well in school and wanting to go to college. Her gratitude for her mentors helping to connect her to resources so that she can access college and maybe even find a way to pay for college so her mother won’t have to worry are ways that show she has been shown justice.

We have youth who have become such dear friends with their mentors that they’ve been part of their weddings and part of other parts of their lives beyond this experience. Over 50% of our matches last beyond one year and this is due to the solidarity if their relationship and the mutuality of the friendship that is created in this bond. Mentors and youth become something special, something unique that you can’t find unless you look for it and often times you need a little help through a program. I have been fortunate to work in a job where my passion is people and youth and helping. I’m able to use my passion and put all of those things together to allow people to express their gifts and support one another in a way that is organic and authentic to who they are.

For me, I work towards justice every day in my community by trying to help the youth who may otherwise go unnoticed in our school systems and in our culture and encourage them to have a voice. I find that it’s easier to have a voice when you have a cheerleader and sometimes that’s all it takes. Over my time at Western Youth Network I have seen youth graduate from high school that were told that they couldn’t even make it to ninth grade. I’ve seen mentors hang onto their relationships with their youth long past their commitment and follow them as they graduate from high school and on into adulthood. I have seen the power of mentoring relationships help mentors who have struggled themselves with self harm grow to feel more empowered and valued because of what they have given to another person.

It is the openness and willingness of people to come together and meet a stranger to become a friend that keeps me motivated and passionate about this work. In a world that is precarious with how we meet new people I am amazed by the youth who are willing to befriend a stranger and the mentors who want to be good role models. Sometimes their cultures and their upbringing are so very far and distant from each other but in the end it is their friendship that overrides differences. It’s truly how I believe we are going to change the world and repair so much of the damage that we continue to do in our nation. It starts with our youth and it starts with role models showing youth how to be good stewards of their community, our state, our nation, and our planet.


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Angela McMann has been working in the field of mentoring since 2004 with the Western Youth Network. Angela is fortunate to have an incredible team who help her to provide community based and school based mentors to over 100 youth annually. Angela is a believer in the positive change that comes from deep relationships. Angela is fortunate to have found her soul mate in her husband and together they have two sweet boys. Angela loves rock climbing, playing the the mountains, and silk painting.


  1. Orlando Dobbin

    Loved this!! Beautiful article, Angela! 🙂 You captured well the magic that happens in mentoring relationships between mentors and their mentees. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to experience the magic for myself through Wyn’s programming! I’m glad you’ve found a place to do work that you’re passionate about and feel called to!

    Liked by 1 person

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