WHEN Ethel Dumas was growing up poor on a peach farm in Hamlet, N.C., she and her 11 brothers and sisters did not lack role models. ``Our family was bound by the church and school,'' Ms. Dumas, a mental health worker, recalls.
``Many of the neighborhood adults took an interest in what we kids were doing. And believe me, that made a difference.''
When Dumas moved to New York in 1955 to help an older sister raise two children, she found that many of the social supports and shared values that she had benefited from were missing.
Now, to rebuild some of those links, several times a week Dumas and nine other women enter various homes hobbled by poverty to teach young mothers how to care for their children.
The volunteers - homemakers, a retired teacher, a social worker, and a beautician - are part of a 30-month-old intergenerational program sponsored by Family Dynamics, a nonprofit agency dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect.
The project, based in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood whose teeming housing projects and boarded-up storefronts attest to decades of chronic suffering, provides a support system for struggling young mothers. Brooklyn has the highest number of reported cases of child abuse and neglect of any of New York's five boroughs and accounts for nearly half of the city's teen-age pregnancies.
``We're trying to keep families together,'' says Rolanda Pyle, volunteer coordinator of Family Dynamics.
Scattered across the country are a small but growing number of initiatives that engage older people to help at-risk youths. These programs range from established, federally funded efforts, such as the Foster Grandparent programs and longstanding school volunteer programs, to local grass-roots projects, says Marc Freedman, a program officer of the Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures Inc.
In school districts in Iowa and Michigan, older volunteers teach career awareness and educational excellence to youngsters in danger of dropping out of school.
Nonprofit programs in Maine and Illinois are drawing on the life experience of older women to assist disadvantaged teen-age mothers in raising their children.
A Massachusetts chapter of the International Union of Electrical Workers sponsors an alternative sentencing program for jail-bound juveniles, whereby retired union workers act as mentors to the first offenders.
While the intergenerational movement is young, social service administrators argue that the concept, with its twofold agenda of linking divergent age groups, has enormous potential.
Elder volunteers help young people isolated by poverty navigate their way into the adult world. At the same time, these programs tap a skilled yet underutilized age group - older adults.
``There is a strong correlation between kids who succeed and their ability to develop good relationships with adults,'' says Mr. Freedman. ``Traditional social programs generally fail in engaging the young. Intergenerational programs work because kids meet adult figures, not authority figures.''
The process of matching adults with disadvantaged young people is not always frictionless. Many of the young suffer from a range of poverty-related problems, from unemployment to drug and alcohol abuse to physical abuse or neglect from a parent. Often they're hostile and suspicious of adults.
``But those ill feelings tend to evaporate rather quickly,'' says Freedman. ``The youngsters often are receptive because of their intense need. An older person becomes an extended family member, like an aunt or uncle.''
For one year, Adrienne Rogers could barely pull herself up from the plastic-covered sofa that dominates the living room of her apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project. Her sister died in the apartment. Her husband, a truck driver, died there the following year. Left with three young daughters and no one to turn to, she was living on $446 a month in public assistance in a roomful of memories.
``I cried, and my kids cried louder,'' Adrienne recalls. ``There was one week where the crackheads robbed $3 in food stamps off me. The next day one of them wanted $5 for protection money. After that, I just stopped.''
Ten months ago, Ethel Dumas began her visits to Adrienne's apartment. She helped the children with their homework and taught the youngest to tie her shoes. Over coffee, Ms. Dumas confided her own troubles with raising a daughter born out of wedlock. She gave Adrienne ``encouraging words'' and helped her through ``blue days.''
``I started to communicate, I started getting out,'' says Adrienne. ``I even got a job at a department store for the Christmas holidays. Miss Dumas gave me courage. But it's still a struggle.''
Whether the fledgling intergenerational movement realizes its potential is still in question. It is unclear whether older people will come forward in great enough numbers to enable new projects to grow. Public-policy makers are somewhat resistant to intergenerational programs, because their success is not easily charted, says Freedman.
But ``it's easier to go on if someone is pushing you,'' comments Ms. Pyle of Family Dynamics. ``If a mother is without hope, she has nothing left to give to her children.''