We had the good fortune of connecting with Elycia Cook and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Elycia, is there something you can share with us that those outside of the industry might not be aware of?
I work in the field of positive youth development, specifically youth mentoring. Positive youth development is an intentional, pro-social approach that engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups, and families in a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes, and enhances youths’ strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by focuses on their strengths, using a growth mindset approach to supporting young people and seeing them as assets to our communities as opposed to deficits. At FRIENDS FIRST our positive youth development approach is peer mentoring. When most people think of youth mentoring, they think of adult to child and 1 on 1. They also think of an older person telling a younger person what to do or what is best for them. What most people do not know is that this approach to mentoring leaves 1 in 3 children without a mentor and of the current formal mentor matches between adults and youth, 73% of the mentors do not look like the mentees or come from their communities.  In addition,  recruiting quality adult mentors is becoming more and more difficult each day. Just to let you know, in reference to the almost 73% of mentors do not look like the students they serve, that does not mean that a middle class, white person cannot have positive outcomes and meaningful experiences, as a mentor to a person of color from different communities.  However, that does not negate the fact that all people, especially young people need to see role models, mentors, teachers and leaders who look like them.  This allows them to more easily envision themselves in roles of leadership and success.  There is much data on positive outcomes for youth who have teachers/mentors who look like them.  For people of color,  just having a doctor of the same ethnicity, increases our chances for healthy outcomes and survival.  With all that being said, a viable option to identifying more mentors especially mentors of color, and from within the community to help solve “the mentoring crisis”, is peer mentoring programs.

Peer mentoring programs engage young people in being change agents in their own communities. It allows young people to not just be program recipients,  but program participants as well as engage them in program design, decision making and outcomes. Peer mentoring increases the likelihood of young people having a mentor who looks like them and can better relate in terms of life experiences as they are closer to the age of the mentees.  They also have similar life challenges because they come from like environments with perhaps similar family structure, and usually similar socioeconomic levels.  Peer mentoring also has impact on two young lives instead of one.  When sharing  about the impact of our program, we quote, Robert Heinlein “When one teaches two learn.” Most often in peer mentoring relationships, the mentor gets more out of it than the mentee.

Allowing a young person to serve as a mentor communicates that you believe in them and their ability to contribute and lead.  Our mentors develop leadership, healthy relationship and conflict skills far earlier than a majority of their peers.  Lastly, studies show that when young people have a mentor they are 48% more likely to be a mentor or volunteer in their communities as an adult. If they were a youth mentor that increases to 62%. Therefore, we are helping end the mentoring crisis by providing more mentors right now and for years to come! FRIENDS FIRST has trademarked the term MENTORLIFE™ which means to always have someone investing in you and to pay it forward by always investing in someone else. Having been at FRIENDS FIRST for 12 years, I am beginning to see our 3rd generation of mentors living out MENTORLIFE™.  Our most recent challenge/evolution is in this day an age, we have to be creative, equitable in our mentoring practices and learn to adapt to almost any platform, just in case you find yourself in a pandemic and have to go VIRTUAL! 🙂 I hope these words help people to think of mentoring a little differently and to be open to various ways of ensuring that young people have what they need and who they need to live their best lives!

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
As someone born to a teenage mom, who was the single mother of three girls by the age 20 in one of the most poverty stricken areas of Detroit, MI, and the victim of abuse,  in many ways my life was meant to be a statistic. However,  because of the many mentors in my life, including my mom who despite very challenging circumstances, worked hard and gave me some good memories and traditions I am who I am today. As I serve as CEO of a youth serving organization, there are three things that I live by and hope you will also consider as you serve your community.

1.     “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults. Frederick Douglas.

2.    “Every child needs at least one adult who is crazy about him or her.” Urie Brongenbrenner.

3.    “People will not remember what you said, they may not remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

As I have seen up close and personal what happens when you don’t invest in people when they are young, I have dedicated my life to building strong children.  I am so crazy about my own kids and many of yours. Lastly, I may not always hit the mark, but I am intentional about making people feel seen and worthy. I believe these core values contributed to me being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Mentoring in January of 2020 at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Ironically, my sister Virginia who I just found in 2016,  just came to visit me in Colorado, along with her two incredible kiddos. Let’s go through the itinerary.

  • We did a Black Lives Matter photo shoot downtown at and around Union Station with MXM Photos by Miles.  He is a former participant in the FRIENDS FIRST STARS Peer Mentoring Program.  He is also a young, Black Entrepreneur, so it was great to support a local Black owned business and such a fine young man.  The Colorado sun was unforgiving that day, but it was beautiful, and many of the shots are priceless.
  • We did Yoga on the Rocks at Red Rocks.
  • I wanted take them to Breckenridge but there was way too much traffic,  so we turned around about 40 minutes into the journey.  I guess folks are in need of mountain getaways during the pandemic. Our  interrupted destination was our family cabin in Blue River. This is my sacred place, my safe zone. Didn’t quite get there but we did take in a lot of the mountainous beauty.

I love taking people downtown and to the mountains.  It  shows such a contrast in our beautiful state.

  • We dined at Hapa Sushi in Landmark.  Sushi Den is my all-time favorite, but when there are seven of you, Happy Hour at Hapa is always the ticket.
  • We went to cute and quaint downtown Golden and enjoyed lunch with a friend.
  • We later attended the annual Cook family fish fry (outdoors, with social distancing rules and plenty of sanitizer of course). We got to spend time with my most incredible in laws and family, who are also my heroes and sheroes.  It is a rule of mine that all guest must meet the Cooks.  They are incredible community servants and caregivers who have a way of inspiring everyone who is blessed to meet them.
  • Oh, I almost forgot, we had dinner at the home of my friends who are also generous donors to FRIENDS FIRST. They have the perfect view of the mountain skyline and sunset.  One you can only experience in beautiful Colorado.

We did not have time nor was it likely open because of the pandemic, but I enjoy taking people to the ART museum, depending on the exhibit. I also love the many patio rooftop restaurants in Denver. Colorado is full of wonderful sites, people and restaurants. But I do not want to brag too much, we do not need any more people moving to Denver anytime soon!  J

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
What a great opportunity to give a shout out to others. I want to give a shout out to six people at FRIENDS FIRST. They are Andy Matott, Nancy Parker, Leah Galvin, Cheryl Fair, Chuck Acker and Michael Wright. Sometimes it is hard being an African American and female CEO. I do not think we always get the same level of respect, support or opportunities as other genders and races. I am also from Detroit, MI which has a totally different vibe than Colorado. Therefore, I do not always fit the mold. These six people always have my back, allow me to be unapologetically me,  and support my dreams and vision for the organization even when sometimes, they may be way out there. As we embark upon a well overdue deeper dive into equity and inclusion and breaking down systems of racism, they are the ones leading the charge as they too understand power, position and privilege. Yes, I am the CEO and they report to me,  but with this crew that is not how we roll. These team members are my coaches, sounding boards, friends and comrades in this journey of leadership, equity and social change. They are all very different from one another and even MORE different than me. Therein lies the beauty in these relationships. The fact that we get to do meaningful work together is the cherry on top!

Website: www.friendsfirst.org

Image Credits
MXM Photos by Miles

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