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Celebration of Service

Technology helps connect disadvantaged teens with mentors

Each week, Prue Gallagher and Rob Barker advise and guide students via the web

One of the great advantages of technology is that it allows people to connect, communicate, and work anywhere. Prue Gallagher, an IBM internal communications specialist knows this first hand. About two years ago, Prue’s father died and she left her family and her nearest IBM location some 300km southwest in Melbourne, and moved to the remote farm where she was raised in order to care for her mother.

“My mother had had a stroke and couldn’t speak. After losing her husband, and losing her mobility and speech, I couldn’t disrupt her life even further by moving her away from the only home she’s known for the past 60 years. I’m incredibly lucky that IBM lets me work anywhere.”

In addition to being willing to do whatever it takes to care for her family, Prue’s father also instilled in a spirit of volunteering in her. “I wanted to find an opportunity where I could give back – remotely – in a way that was meaningful to me.”


Internet-enabled mentoring

The Smith Family is a national, independent children's charity that helps disadvantaged Australians to get the most out of their education, so they can create better futures for themselves. The organization, in partnership with IBM, hosts an online mentoring program – called iTrack - which is offered to senior high school students from low socio-economic status (SES) areas.

“The Smith Family mentor program was a perfect fit because I meet with my student online. All our interaction is done over the Internet with online chat,” says Prue. “I meet with my student once a week, for an hour at a time. The program interested me because I’ve had a teenage daughter myself – she’s 22 now – and I vividly remember what she went through as a teenager and how difficult it is for girls in those mid-teen years as they’re trying to find their own way.”

An initial face-to-face meeting

Interaction takes place on-line through specifically designated and monitored chat rooms and message boards. Some pairs also have three face-to-face meetings, which helps build rapport between student and mentor.

Rob Barker, a technical support manager for IBM, hails from Chicago, Illinois, US, but lives and works in Sydney, Australia, where the Smith Family is based. He’s met with all three of the students he’s mentored.

“We meet three times a year, but still do all the mentoring online,” says Rob, “But during those face-to-face meetings you make more progress, I think. You can see their body language; you get more signals from your student, and know how they’re feeling and if they’re shying away from an issue. Of course, they’re clever and they can see if you respond the same way,” laughs Rob.

One of the reasons that Rob was drawn to the iTrack program was because he doesn’t have kids of his own. “It’s a tough time to go through, being that age,” says Rob. “My dad was a great mentor to me during those years – of course I didn’t know it at the time because I was 16 – but so much of what he told me then stuck with me. I saw this as an opportunity to give back what my dad gave to me.”

Rob uses what he’s learned at IBM to help him interact with his students. “The coaching skills that I’ve learned with IBM come into play in a huge way. In terms of how IBM has taught me to really listen and take feedback from someone and guide them to an answer rather than tell them the answer – I use those skills and get a chance to really develop them more,” Rob says.

While projects and activities are provided to guide the development of the relationships, much value is also gleaned from the social interaction between the mentor and student. “Just to have an adult to talk to who is not a teacher or an authority figure, helps them and makes a big difference,” says Rob

A one year commitment

After meeting for an hour a week for six months, the students “graduate” and the mentor relationship ends. “We don’t have any contact once the program finishes. It’s a bit hard to not know what happens to these kids, but I also understand it,” says Prue Gallagher. “I think it’s nice for the kids that we are just an interlude in their lives. They might not see immediate benefits, but often these are experiences they’ll look back on later on and realize their value,” says Prue.

Rob concurs. “I was hoping there was a way through the Smith Family to keep contact via email, but Australia has very strict rules governing contact. However, I know from my own experience, when I was a teenager, I thought the stuff my dad told me didn’t matter. It was years later that I realized not only did it matter, it made a difference, and I made decisions based on his advice without really even realizing it. That helps me to feel like I’ve made a difference in my students’ lives.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.