Youth programs that run on the strength of adult volunteers are changing the way they recruit and support busy individuals.
While groups such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America still prefer adults to commit for at least a year, other organizations, such as Girl Scouts, allow "bite-size" volunteering, and a number of businesses are encouraging employees to mentor schoolchildren on-site.
"I've been in the volunteer-recruitment business for 20 years," says Susan Mason, a National Mentoring Partnership spokeswoman in Washington, "and people in [our] profession are working better and harder and wiser than I've ever seen. They're tackling the nitty-gritty details not only to get the best volunteers, but to keep them."
Donald Cost has been a Big Brother for six years. He speaks of the rewards of mentoring even for a busy professional like himself.
Mr. Cost, a pharmaceutical salesman who lives in Randolph, Mass., remains close to his Little Brother, Jeff, even after a major change in his life - marriage - has added family responsibilities.
"Jeff trusts me a great deal and I've earned that to a certain extent," Cost says. "I approach Jeff as a biological brother, not just as part of a program. When I introduce him to my friends, I say, 'This is my brother, Jeff.' I never say, 'This is my brother, Jeff, from the Big Brother program.' It's so natural now."
John Pallies, another Big Brother in the Boston program, was in graduate school when he took the plunge. He says it's been a quick four years with Nick, his Little Brother. "It gets easier every week. I used to entertain Nick; now I'm hanging out with him. He's an integral part of my life now, and I [am] of his, I think, which makes it very easy...."
In talking up the Big Brother program, Mr. Pallies knows many men worry that they'll get in too deep and and wind up as social workers, which they aren't.
"I say, 'Take it at face value and hang out with the kid; be his friend and see where it goes,' " he says.
Studies show that such direct contact between caring adults and under-served youngsters can make a measurable difference. Estimates place the number of at-risk children in the United States at 13.6 million, and a million kids or less reportedly receive some kind of mentoring.
A landmark 1995 study measured the influence of Big Brothers and Big Sisters on their young charges. When compared with their non-mentored peers, Little Brothers and Sisters were:
*46 percent less likely to start using drugs.
*27 percent less likely to start drinking.
*52 percent less likely to skip a day of school.
Although the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America specializes in intensive mentoring programs, and has more than 140,000 active adult participants nationwide, it too is creating new windows of volunteering opportunity.
The organization offers a school-based mentoring option that helps attract working people and retirees, as well as college- and even high school-age volunteers.
"Many of the schools like us to come in and read with the kids," says CEO Judy Vredenburgh of Big Brothers Big Sisters. These visits often occur over the lunch hour or after school.
"The activity the adult and child do is not important," Ms. Vredenburgh says. "It's the nature of the relationship, the quality of the friendship."
While hour-a-week, drop-in mentoring might seem too easy, it still can be meaningful to the child, Vredenburgh says. "It's a big deal when they know somebody cares enough to take time out of their work," she observes. "The child gets to see a role model who is successful and who believes in them."
Mentoring doesn't just take place on the child's turf. In some cases, young people are transported to adult volunteers, who never leave their workplace.
At Goldman Sachs in New York, for example, inner-city kids are bused to the company's offices to visit mentors.
David Neils of Fort Collins, Colo., has taken this concept of worker convenience even further. He started a program of telementoring at Hewlett-Packard, in which several thousand employees nationwide use e-mail and Internet message boards to academically assist students, from the elementary grades to college. Today he runs the International Telementor Center.
Such accommodations may address the time-availability issue for would-be volunteers, but does it send the message to young people that adults will help, but only on their terms?
"There are compromises we've got to make in order to make [mentoring] work," says Jay Winsten, who runs the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and is a key strategist in attracting new mentors through a national campaign of public service announcements.
"Mentoring is getting the recognition it deserves," says Linda Alioto-Robinson, the executive director of the Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership. "For a long time it's been frustrating to work in this field. People think it's fluff stuff: You're not feeding the hungry, not housing the homeless. A lot of the research that's been done over the past five or six years has made the difference. There's scientific data proving that mentoring is serious stuff."
Making it easier on volunteers
Based on her experience, Ms. Alioto-Robinson estimates 25 to 30 percent of mentors do not fulfill the whole term of their commitment, whatever its length.
Among programs with a lower attrition rates, she notices "a direct correlation between how well organized and run the program is, how well mentors are trained, how well they understand their commitment, and how well they are supported throughout the program."
When the National Mentoring Partnership began in 1989, says Ms. Mason, 70 percent of the people who called about mentoring opportunities fell by the wayside, either because they were screened out or dropped out.
To address this situation, Mason says mentoring organizations have examined everything from how welcoming they are when a potential volunteer calls to how effective they are in sharing information.
"What's happening with the mentoring programs and volunteer referral centers across the country is they're trying to be much more efficient," Mason explains. "If somebody doesn't fit their program, they'll say, 'Here's another program that might work for you.' "
The average length of a "match" or relationship in the Boston Big Brother program, says John Pearson, president of the Big Brother Association of Greater Boston, is two to three years. The Boston organization enjoys one of the highest success rates, with 75 percent of Big Brother-Little Brother pairings successfully completing the first year. This, Mr. Pearson believes, reflects on the thoroughness of the interviewing-matching process and on increased sensitivity to the volunteer.
"We used to be child-focused and didn't really understand the anxiety on the part of the volunteer," Pearson says. "These are children who have been disappointed by the adult world, and in order to protect them from further disappointment, we used to put up screening barriers to men. They had to prove to us that they really wanted to volunteer so we would know they are properly motivated for the long-term relationship needs of the kid."
Part of the problem of this approach is the hurdle it presents to volunteers, especially to men who sometimes seem less confident in the relationship area.
"I remember panicking the day I learned I had a match," says Eric Boemer of getting a Little Brother, a process that can take months. "I called my brother-in-law, who got me involved. He said, it was normal to feel apprehensive. He also said, 'You've just got to trust the program.' "
Sometimes, though, sticky situations come up - a request for financial help, a desire to intervene at home or school, or difficulties in bringing proper closure to a relationship.
When this happens, the volunteer should not be totally on his own.
Big Brothers, for example, can call on seasoned case workers to help coach volunteers through the rough spots.
Mr. Boemer, a Boston mutual-fund company employee who just closed out his formal Little Brother relationship, makes the point that these arrangements don't last forever .
"The program always emphasizes that you are not a parent," he says, "and when it comes to the point of not having beneficial fun, and the child is beginning to make other choices, then it's time to end it."
But the rewards of good, old-fashioned one-to-one mentoring are hard to beat.
Ask Dave Dulczewski, who's been a Big Brother in Boston for three years.
"I knew Ryan, my Little Brother, was comfortable with our relationship about six months into it when he would lean on my shoulder a little when we were sitting next to each other," Mr. Dulczewski says.
Dulczewski is now married and the father of a one-year-old son, but he still enjoys getting together with Ryan.
"At Christmas he was pushing the stroller through the mall and having fun," Dulczewski says, "and I've told Ryan that as my son gets older, he can take on the role of big brother. He's excited about that."
A number of Web sites provide detailed information on the who, when, where, why, and what of getting involved in youth-mentoring programs across the country. Here's a sampling:
*The National Mentoring Partnership
*Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
* Kiwanis International
*Girl Scouts of the USA
*Boy Scouts of America
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society