Helping Out America's Youths - Family-Style

Volunteer 'summit' will press need for more adult mentors.

Now, volunteering to help a troubled youngster can be a family affair.

From Philadelphia to Oakland, Calif., volunteer agencies are encouraging adult mentors to bring youngsters home to experience life in a stable, two-parent family. Unlike the traditional one-on-one mentoring approach, "family mentoring" can enable people give to their communities while still spending treasured free time with their own children.

Family mentoring signals a new flexibility by volunteer agencies to accommodate busy schedules of today's volunteers. It's one way of addressing the nation's need for more adult mentors - a dominant theme of this week's star-studded presidential "summit" in Philadelphia.

The summit on volunteerism features most of America's political luminaries, who put shoulder to spade yesterday to spruce up a park in one of the city's low-income neighborhoods. Their effort was intended, too, to lay the groundwork for today, when presidents past and present will mount the stairs of Independence Hall in a united bid to revitalize the country's sense of civic responsibility.

The steady commitment of an adult's time is one of the most powerful forces in turning kids around, experts say. A recent survey of the nation's five largest Big Brothers/Big Sisters programs found that at-risk teens who had mentors were 46 percent less likely to start using drugs, 27 percent less likely to start using alcohol, 52 percent less likely to skip school, and 33 percent less likely to get into fights. And even though the mentors rarely helped children with their schoolwork, grades improved 3 percent.

"The rise in grades may look pretty small, but it took us by surprise," says Gary Walker of Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia, which conducted the study. Even so, "it confirmed a suspicion we had, that simply having an adult in their lives can make a difference."

Tapping the strong, natural urge to please an adult can be the best way to keep at-risk children on the straight and narrow path, experts say. Summit organizers put the number of at-risk children - who live in poor families, often with a single parent - at 15 million.

"In California, we interviewed 100 kids who made it back after years of getting into trouble with drugs and alcohol," says Andrew Mecca of the California Mentoring Initiative, a public-private partnership in Sacramento. "The thing ... that made the difference was that someone held aspirations for them."

But as the work week grows longer, many adults feel unable to commit some of their scant free time. Family mentoring breaks down this barrier, says Debra Lambrecht of the Caring About Kids mentoring program in Auburn, Calif. "It benefits not just the youth and their families, but the mentoring families as well."

Family mentoring is just one of the new methods being used to attract busy volunteers. Another approach is "team mentoring," in which volunteers form a partnership with other adults and take turns looking after a set of kids. One partner may focus on character, another on community service, and another on helping children choose their career paths.

But while volunteer groups are changing their strategies to attract younger adults, the bulk of volunteer work is being carried out by retirees, who have both time and civic spirit.

In Philadelphia, retiree Ethel Taylor gives three or four hours a week, meeting with a sixth-grade girl to help build her confidence in school. The work must be paying off, because Mrs. Taylor's youngster recently won a trophy in a public speaking contest.

Nearby, Harold Watson spends several hours a week with a seventh-grade boy. They go out to eat together, attend soccer games, and drive out to the airport and watch the airplanes take off. Most of all, they talk. "He says he wants to be a pilot," says Mr. Watson, a retired community activist, "and I told him, 'You have to get A's and B's and be serious about your studies. Pilots have a lot of responsibility."

Watson says Americans could donate more of their time to the community if they spent less time in front of the television. "What good is time if it isn't used productively?" he asks. "For myself, I just feel better as a person that the attention I'm giving is making a difference."

Launching the presidential summit in Philadelphia, volunteers were up at dawn Sunday in the Germantown section, shovels, rakes, and paint brushes in hand. They're transforming a neighborhood park from a drab, neglected corner of beaten-down grass to a bright, cheerful center for children to play.

Power tools are humming as volunteers erect bright blue-and-red monkey bars and jungle gyms. The neighborhood kids helped design the park in conjunction with KaBoom, a Washington-based nonprofit agency that builds playgrounds around the country.

Gary Pawlovich, a father of five from Bucks County, Pa., is holding up a cast-iron support. This is the first time he's volunteered in years, in part because he and his family have moved six times in the past 20 years.

"It's hard to build up relationships in a community when you're moving so much, and community projects have suffered as a result," says Mr. Pawlovich, who works for the corporation that is underwriting the playground construction. Volunteering has given him a sense of satisfaction, he says, but also a greater awareness of the challenges faced by low-income communities like Germantown.

* Staff writer Alexandra Marks contributed to this report from Philadelphia.

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