Catch a Kid in Need

A former Pittsburgh Steeler cheers for mentoring

I may be known for a big catch in the 1976 Super Bowl, but I'd rather be remembered for helping catch kids in need and lifting them up with mentors from Big Brothers/Big Sisters - one of the scores of organizations that will benefit from the upcoming Presidents' Summit for America's Future.

With some 15 million of our young people today at risk of not achieving healthy, fulfilling, and productive lives, the need for this summit is urgent. Too many of our young people are not getting the kind of nurturing and mentoring they deserve. Too many are losing their way, falling prey to drugs, and dropping out of school. Too many have become the victims of violence.

When I was in seventh grade, all I really wanted to do was hang out with my friends. Luckily, Mrs. Robinson, my junior high school counselor, had other plans for me. When a scholarship to a private school became available, she suggested that I get it.

I hated the idea of parting company with my buddies, but Mrs. Robinson and my mother made me accept the opportunity. As wise and caring mentors, they saw what I couldn't see - the long-term benefit of the schooling this scholarship could make possible. It probably was the best thing that ever happened to me. I look back and realize how many kinds of mentors - teachers, coaches, etc. - helped me develop into the person I am today.

While there are many mentoring programs in the world today, nothing short of a national effort can address the enormity of the problems facing our children. The Presidents' Summit will launch the massive effort that we need. President Clinton and former President Bush are the honorary co-chairs, and retired Gen. Colin Powell will be the general chairman of the event, which will be held in Philadelphia April 27-29.

All the living presidents will be there, with former first lady Nancy Reagan representing her husband. In addition, more than 2,500 delegates representing all 50 states and nearly 150 cities will be there to join with leaders of a wide array of corporations and religious, education, volunteer, and service organizations - setting new standards of responsibility for all of us.

Five resources for each child

This once-in-a-lifetime initiative is aimed at delivering to young people in need five resources: an ongoing relationship with a caring adult (mentor, tutor, coach); safe places and structured activities during nonschool hours to learn and grow; a healthy start; a marketable skill through effective education; and an opportunity to give back through community service. Each resource is considered an essential prerequisite for anyone to have a shot at the kind of success America traditionally has offered its youth.

The summit is all about helping lots of young people get a good grip on their lives. The presence of the presidents and Mr. Powell will add an exciting element to the summit, but they are involving themselves because they care. They know the importance of mentoring and they know the cause is a serious one. The delegates at the Philadelphia meeting will team up to create effective playbooks for implementing the goals of the summit back home.

Wanted: positive role model

My involvement in mentoring began with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in 1980, and I am convinced that one-to-one mentoring is the best way to help young people avoid the pitfalls the world presents. Every youngster needs positive role models, and it is through mentoring relationships that a sense of self-worth is cultivated. It is also through mentoring that our children can best learn what it takes to lead a good life - setting goals, taking responsibility for ourselves, appreciating the fact that we each must learn to relate well with the rest of the world.

A recent study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters relationships shows how well mentoring can work. After a year or more of mentoring, the study found that little sisters and little brothers were:

* 46 percent less likely to start using drugs;

* 27 percent less likely to drink alcohol;

* 52 percent less likely to skip school;

* 32 percent less likely to skip a class;

* 33 percent less likely to engage in any violent behavior.

These changes were a direct result of these young people having someone in their lives who was constant and believed in them. But the rewards go both ways. Mentors often talk about a new sense of accomplishment and worth in their own lives. When you give of yourself as a mentor, you learn a lot about yourself - about being patient and listening to another's needs, for example.

You don't have to be a star, a famous politician, or a high-paid business professional to be a mentor. If you get up every morning and work hard toward a goal, you can teach a young person how to recognize responsibilities and how to be a productive individual. A friend of mine, the late Sen. John Heinz, had a family motto: "to do a common thing uncommonly well." Young people need mentors to share such wisdom. Positive and productive lives will be the result. We will see a lot of quality quarterbacks at the upcoming summit. But it is important for as many of us as possible to join the team. Everyone has a role to play, and each individual can make a difference in the lives of our young people.

I want to call on all of you because all of you in some way, shape, or form can be what Mrs. Robinson was for me and provide a young person with the tools to realize his or her dreams.

* Lynn Swann is an ABC sportscaster, a board director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, and a former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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