Creatively seeking mentors among the time-starved

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Jasmine Washington, once notably shy and diffident, now exudes an air of confidence. And the North Philly teenager is not shy about crediting, at least in part, the two women who over the past four years were always just a phone call away.

"When I needed someone to support me, or a place to go to get stress off my mind, my mentors were always there," says Jasmine, a college-bound high school senior. "I don't know where I would be without them."

Testaments like that explain why mentors are shown to be especially effective in helping at-risk and low-income children. The trouble is that many would-be mentors in today's time-crunched competitive culture are scared away, creating a stumbling block for the nation's 5,000 mentoring organizations.

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As a result, many organizations have gotten creative, pioneering new ways to get volunteers involved - from co-mentoring, as in Jasmine's case, to on-site corporate mentoring during an

employee's workday, to school-based mentoring. They're even experimenting with e-mentoring over the Internet.

"We're just trying to find any way we can to find a caring adult for these kids, meet both their needs, and still make it a caring relationship," says Colleen Appleby-Carroll of the National Mentoring Partnership, a coalition of mentoring organizations.

Currently, only estimates exist on how many children are in a mentoring relationship nationwide, or how many could benefit from one. But those estimates are telling: More than 15 million kids between the ages of 5 and 18 nationwide are "at-risk," but only a fraction of that number - half a million - are believed to have extra support.

Like many people, one of Jasmine's mentors, Linda Holliday, was initially worried she wouldn't have enough time to fulfill a mentoring commitment. That's why when she expressed an interest in Philadelphia's Sponsor-a-Scholar program, the directors were more than willing for her to take on a partner.

"We encourage it. Sometimes people find they travel a lot on their jobs, so they might find a co-worker or another friend to do it with," says Joyce Mantell, the program director. "We do it to meet the needs of the mentor, but we also need to feel assured the student can handle more than one mentor, so we're careful about that."

It worked not only for Jasmine, but also for Ms. Holliday. "To hear Jasmine talk, it sounds like mentoring is really hard ... but I don't get that sense at all," she says. "It's not like it's a ton of time.... I don't want to scare people away from doing it."

In New York, where the mentoring movement was founded in 1904, Big Brothers Big Sisters has taken a decidedly corporate approach to finding adult volunteers. In the past decade, they persuaded 37 major companies to allow employees to mentor young people at work during the day.

"We said to them, 'The reason we're having trouble finding volunteers is because they're working like dogs in your companies, so how about giving them time off during the workday?' " says Allan Luks, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City. "It relieves stress, and people make up the time since they're working such long hours anyway."

At New York Life Insurance, 25 employees have a little brother or sister who comes into the office to visit. "It's a wonderful way for employees to feel good about themselves," says Peter Bushyeager, vice president for corporate responsibility. "They know that they're having a very direct impact, and they can see the results. There's nothing better than having a really positive impact on a young person's life."

But not all employers are so willing to give employees time out of their work days to volunteer. So the National Mentoring Partnership turned to the Internet. In conjunction with America Online and People magazine, they've launched a pilot program called "Digital Heroes." More than 100 prominent people, from soccer Olympian Mia Hamm to actor Michael J. Fox, are now mentoring youngsters in underprivileged neighborhoods over the Internet. They exchange e-mails and sometimes chat on the Internet.

So far, it's a pilot program, but the Partnership hopes to use the experience to draw up national standards for training and screening potential volunteers.

Another type of unique mentoring that's blossomed in the past five years is school-based mentoring. Companies or churches adopt nearby schools, and mentors drop by one hour a week.

"It's still one on one, but it's not so intimidating, so I think people are more willing to try it," says Jean Grossman of Public Private Ventures, a social-policy think tank in Philadelphia. "But we don't know yet what the effects are."

Mentoring advocates are quick to point out that the work helps not just individual students, but the country as a whole. One study of Big Brothers Big Sisters found that kids who've had a volunteer of another race are 10 times more likely to be accepting of people who are different. Volunteers, in turn, are six times more likely to be accepting.

"It's one of the few things that shows you can bridge this terrible gap between the wealthy, middle class, and the poor who think they can never make it in this overheated society, which is so driven materially," says Mr. Luks. "Over 80 percent of our kids now think they can make it."

Last year, three years into their mentoring relationship, Jasmine brought tears to Holliday's eyes when she told her, "You know, I think I can do anything if I set my mind to it."

The whole experience has been so satisfying to Holliday that she's thinking of mentoring again, once Jasmine is successfully launched in college.

"And now that I know what it's like, it's not so daunting," she says. "So next time I might do it by myself."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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