Keeping Touch Through TouchPoints

Acknowledgements:

We are grateful to:

· Sng Bee Bee, for writing the initial draft for this article

· John Tan, for leading the team of volunteers in planning and curating the TouchPoint sessions;

· Glenn Lim, Chairman of Mentoring Alliance Singapore, for motivating and supporting the volunteers and the dedicated team of volunteers who work hard on different aspects of the organisation of each session including publicity, technical support and writing of summaries of each session of which I’ve drawn the support materials for this article;

· Our team of volunteers to whom we are deeply appreciative: Ronald Ng (who played a pivotal role in the initial organisation of these TouchPoint sessions); Lee Han; Delia Pak; Stephen Ng; Cameron Tan, Yeo Wei Hong and Sng Bee Bee;

· Board Members of Mentoring Alliance Lim, Lim Wee-Lim and Ho Siew Cheong for their support of each TouchPoint session; and

· All the session speakers of TouchPoints for volunteering their time to share to very enthusiastic and earnest audiences at each session.



New Realities for Youth Mentoring

In recent years in Singapore, the topic of youth mentoring has been given increasing emphasis amid calls to address common issues such as academic stress, transitions, peer pressure and addiction to digital devices.

Foremost youth mentoring guru Professor Jean Rhodes (2020) in her book, ‘Older and Wiser - New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century’, argues that well-trained youth mentors can be as effective as professionals in supporting youth through the issues that they commonly face. She emphasizes, however, that for this to happen, these youth mentors need to be carefully trained and supervised. She presents a strong case to have “targeted, evidence-based models” (Rhodes, 2020, p. 30), explaining that her research data show that more targeted interventions yield more significant results.



Rhodes prescribes a model of youth mentoring which is based on three approaches, ‘specialized, embedded and blended mentoring’. The specialized approach offers targeted interventions based on specific issues and challenges faced by youth in the unique cultural contexts that they find themselves in. The embedded approach involves mentoring youth in their existing engagements and activities such as their academic studies, sports and other leisure activities. In the blended approach, she advocates a blended model of mentoring youth by harnessing the benefits of digital tools which can be used to match mentors and mentees; remind them of mentor sessions ad coach them. These digital tools can be combined with face-to-face support from the youth mentors. Jean Rhodes’ model of youth mentoring is captured in the table below, depicted in her book:

Source: Jean Rhodes (2020). Older and Wiser - New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, p. 85.


Seeking to heed Rhodes’ advice and wanting to be on the right side of mentoring trends, Mentoring Alliance Singapore leaders realised the need to zoom in on the following areas:

  • The increase in the time that youths spend on their digital devices;

  • Youths’ emotions, and their interpretations of issues such as boredom, frustration, depression, as well as their respective domains being duly impacted such as their social relationships, family ties, and mental well-being;

  • The interventions needed for youth mentors to express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities etc.;

  • Adults building relationships of trust through youth mentoring thus providing safe spaces for youths to retreat to;

  • Challenging youth to take up action and reflection by championing positives and processing negatives in social media feeds; and

  • The realm of the digital world and the use of technology forging new norms in youth work, and the dire need for youth mentors to connect, relate, support, empower and facilitate changes in youths.


Keeping in Touch during Covid-19 Circuit-Breaker Lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic’s appearance in early 2020 threw a spanner of sorts in the works. The practice of youth mentoring as traditionally conducted was disrupted, as were economies and life in general the whole world over. In Singapore, the government imposed heavy restrictions on physical gatherings in what was known as the Circuit Breaker Phase 1 and 2. This spanned a period from April to almost the end of 2020.

Mentoring Alliance shifted its mentor training and equipping sessions as well as its Community of Practice (CoP) gatherings, hitherto conducted in-person, to the online platform, namely, via Zoom. As the realities of safe-distancing and social isolation began to sink in, the idea of regularly gathering more frequently to keep in touch was floated. Hence the monthly TouchPoints series was birthed to address the pain-points, issues, and topics trending in youth mentoring amidst a Covid-stricken world.

The format of each TouchPoints session was designed to be clean and simple – invite a panel of speakers who have both passion and experience address a selected theme, followed by a question-and-answer segment. Before each session ended, participants were also invited to share their feedback and suggest topics for subsequent sessions.

The first TouchPoints, conducted April 2020, explored an existing model of youth mentoring practised by Mendaki. The session hosted by Mr Joe Chan, Head of Youth Services, REACH Community Services and Dr John Tan, ED of CARE Singapore, both members of the Mentoring Alliance steering committee, featured Mr Johann Johari, Assistant Director from Yayasan Mendaki, which has long been very active in the area of youth mentoring. Johann spoke about Mendaki’s mentoring philosophy that is based on a gift-centered approach and recognises youths as assets with tremendous potential to contribute to society.

Discussion and dialogue among participants during the initial April TouchPoints session also uncovered great interest and an urgent need for acquiring skills on the use of technology and digital tools to engage the youths of today - a demand accelerated by the pandemic.

This interest touched a common chord for those serving in the youth sector. A plan was then hatched to host the subsequent TouchPoints session, in May 2020, as a youth sector webinar. Mentoring Alliance then roped in the National Youth Council (NYC), the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), and the Youth Work Association Singapore (YWAS) as partners to promote the session, entitled “Engaging Youths Digitally.” Response was overwhelming. There were 1100 registrants and 750 attendees for the Saturday morning in May 2020. The panel featured four youth work veterans – Glenn Lim, Chairman of Mentoring Alliance; Kelvin Kong, founder of Voices of Asia; Chong Ee Jay, cyber-wellness expert from Focus on the Family; and Izhar Roslan, from RLA Foundation. The CEO of NYC, Mr David Chua, graced the occasion while John Tan was the panel moderator. It was evident that the ensuing pandemic, while creating anxiety, also offered new opportunities for engaging youths, not least of these, digital mentoring.



John Tan, also a board member of Mentoring Alliance, then reached out to participants at the session, to become regular TouchPoints volunteers to help plan and conduct future sessions. This call to action saw some twelve enthusiastic volunteers signing up. At the first volunteers briefing session, when John challenged the volunteers to suggest a theme for subsequent TouchPoint sessions, the topic of ‘Resilience’ was a resounding choice, being the most needed character trait to tide over the period of crisis. It then set the context theme for several of the other TouchPoint sessions from June 2020 onwards.


Resilience and TouchPoints

Over the years, there has been an evolution in the definition of the term ‘resilience’ from attention on the individual’s internal resources; capabilities, traits, characteristics and abilities to an ecological perspective that embodies both this individual’s internal potential and external factors such as external risk and protective factors (Luthar, 2000, pp.543-56 in Lee, 2010, pp. 437-53). Concurrently, there arises the argument that we also need to consider the cultures and diversity of youth in their coping behaviour in crisis resilience (Arrington and Wilson, 2000, 221-30; Ungar, 2004, 341-3 in Lee et al, 2010).

This transformation in perspectives on resilience means a shift to looking at how youth interact with their environment and draw upon the resources to maintain their mental health. The effectiveness with which youths achieve success in coping is also dependent on how they are socialized to view their mental well-being (Ungar, 2004 in Lee et al, 2010). Viewed in this light, it is equally crucial to study youth mentors’ perspectives of what constitute risks to youths’ mental well-being and how they are equipped to support and assist youth to overcome these risks during the Covid pandemic.

Cognizant of the literature and prevailing thinking on resilience, the TouchPoint sessions looked at resilience from both within an individual as well as the importance of external supports. The 2020 TouchPoints series then concluded with a discussion on using technology as an enabler.