It's a frigid January evening - an excellent night to hustle home after work. But more than 100 New Yorkers have chosen instead to pack into a crowded midtown conference room.
Late arrivals stand in the back, juggling bulky winter coats and briefcases as they listen. The draw for this intent crowd: They hope to become mentors. Whether they know it or not, they've picked National Mentoring Month as the time to get started.
These are halcyon days for mentoring. Celebrities promote it, 20-somethings find it appealing, and clusters of 9/11-impelled volunteers embrace it. About 2.5 million young people have formal mentors today, compared with only 500,000 in 1990, according to the National Mentoring Partnership (NMP) in Alexandria, Va.
And yet it's possible for the movement to grow too fast, observers say. Some groups focus on a "feel good" approach and quick and easy connections, without giving enough thought to quality control. In worst-case scenarios, children could be harmed instead of helped.
"Mentoring is being marketed now as something that's really easy, with dramatic effects," says Jean Rhodes, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and author of "Stand By Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today's Youth."
But that expectation is just not realistic, she argues. "People don't change very easily. Mentoring is really about small wins that occur over a longer period of time."
It's also about commitment, she insists. In her book, she tells of a boy who had been deserted by his father and was further devastated when a mentor backed out of a relationship that had started off strong. For the boy, it was just one more rejection - one that he was ill-equipped to cope with.
Certainly no one wants to discourage adults who are drawn to mentoring. The idea of touching a young life in a personal way, of offering a bit of adult wisdom and some emotional support over a shared pizza or a game of catch, is an easy one to warm up to.
In addition, people are right to think of it as something that generally yields solid results.
One of the most important studies of mentoring in recent years was an evaluation of Philadelphia-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of America - one of the oldest and largest mentoring organizations in the United States. An independent firm did research over an 18-month period in 1992-93 and found that students paired with mentors missed less school than children on the group's waiting list, had lower levels of substance abuse, showed less physical aggression, had better relations with parents and peers, and achieved higher grades.
The good news from the study may have helped to fuel a recruitment frenzy.
There are at least 17.6 million at-risk children in the US who would benefit from a mentoring relationship, the NMP estimates. That's a figure that has some groups working overtime to make the experience as convenient as possible for the volunteer.
For instance, corporate and faith-based programs often allow groups of employees or church members to mentor together at a site and a time that works best for them. Other programs team up two mentors who share one mentee. And online mentoring has surged in popularity.
These approaches can be helpful because more adults and kids find connections, but in some cases, convenience might encroach on quality, says David DuBois, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois in Chicago who has researched the effects of mentoring.
Groups that promote mentorship should rely on a core set of "best practices," he says. These include careful screening of mentors, initial and ongoing training, close monitoring of the relationships, and a degree of parental involvement when possible.
"Mentoring programs are very hungry right now," Professor DuBois says. "They're too apt to take whoever they can get."
Kids who qualify for mentoring programs often have both economic and emotional deficiencies in their lives. "You take a vulnerable kid and put him into a program without these best practices," he says, "and it's pretty clear that such programs can and do cause harm."
DuBois learned some lessons first-hand. While doing research on mentoring, he signed up with Big Brothers Big Sisters and took on a mentee (or "little," to use their terminology.)
Four years later, despite DuBois's move out of state, he and his "little" remain in touch. They are close enough that they begin and end most phone conversations by saying, "I love you."
DuBois has no doubt he's been able to offer important emotional support. "I like to think I was a very dedicated mentor," he says. But he's disappointed that he hasn't been able to do more, particularly when it comes to the boy's poor academic performance.
It's this sense of partial disappointment that mentors need to be prepared for, DuBois says.
If they anticipate a series of glorious and easy victories, and if the organizations that recruit them don't offer enough guidance and realistic perspectives throughout the experience, many will become discouraged and quit.
DuBois remains enthusiastic about Big Brothers Big Sisters, a group he says adheres to best practices and offered him appropriate support.
But he did an analysis of 55 studies on the benefits of mentoring and concluded that "overall, there is a small or modest benefit for the average youth in the average program."
For many of those who take the plunge and enter mentoring relationships, there is a magic that even the most carefully crafted survey can't hope to quantify.
"We were a good match from the start," says Anthony Esteves, a computer programmer who mentored an 11-year-old with a troubled family and few economic resources. The two were paired by the Laboure Center, a charitable group in Boston.
Mr. Esteves recalls the games of football, the walks on the beach, and the trips to his parents' house on Cape Cod that he and his mentee, J.J., enjoyed. Mostly, they just liked hanging out together. "He was aching for a father figure," Esteves says.
The benefits for J.J. were enormous, Esteves says. His self-confidence soared and his schoolwork improved. Today, at 14, he's too busy with sports, studies, and friends for the same close relationship. But their interactions have already outlasted the one to two years that average mentors and mentees stay together, and Esteves says the experience has been a blessing on both sides.
Attorney Kevin Burke is just embarking on the experience of mentoring. He paired up a few months ago with 8-year-old Javon Chapman, through Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of New York. Despite the newness of the match, a certain alchemy already seems to be at work.
Mr. Burke has a demanding job, but he says he enjoys carving out time to go bowling, ice skating, and museum-hopping with Javon, an eager and inquisitive boy with long dark eyelashes and an abundance of happy energy.
"This was one of those matches that was just love at first sight," says Ketty Nazario, their BBBS caseworker.
Javon tends to eye his mentor with a mix of curiosity and adoration. One recent Friday night, as the two wondered what they could do at an upcoming BBBS talent show, Javon was suddenly struck with the perfect answer. "I know a talent we share!" he shouted. "We have the talent of having a good time together."
Mentors can come from anywhere. Instead of a formal pairing through a program, a powerful "natural mentorship" sometimes springs up. Teachers often play that role, even if the word "mentoring" is never used to describe their interventions in students' lives.
Teachers are mentioned again and again in "The Person Who Changed My Life" (Barnes & Noble Publishing), a collection of celebrities' stories about mentors they had as children. The recent book was edited by Matilda Cuomo - who established New York's first statewide one-on-one mentoring program when her husband, Mario Cuomo, was governor.
Some people's teacher-mentors offered practical help. Actor James Earl Jones recalls a high school teacher who suggested he recite poetry to overcome a terrible stutter. Former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean was also freed of a speech impediment and a lack of self-confidence - by a Latin teacher who offered him after-school coaching.
Other mentors created opportunities. News anchor Tim Russert tells of a teacher who started a school paper and appointed him editor to help channel his rambunctious energy and keep him out of trouble. A second-grade teacher noted that young Jessye Norman loved music, and arranged for her to serenade the entire student body - an experience the famed singer says changed her life.
Still others provided character education. US Sen. John McCain says a teacher who praised him for having had the courage to disagree with fellow students on a difficult issue touched him deeply - and gave him a standard he clung to during dark days in a Vietnamese prison camp.
But there are also people who fulfill a mentoring role without forming a personal relationship, by teaching solely through example, notes writer and editor Pete Hamill.
Mr. Hamill, who grew up in Brooklyn, witnessed the courage and grace of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball. Hamill never met Mr. Robinson, but he says that to this day, when in a tough spot, he finds his moral compass by asking himself, "What would Jackie do?"