Mentoring Programs Hope to Expand

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A $450 million mentoring program proposed by President Bush to match capable adults with children in need is a great idea but could be fraught with frustrations, according to experts on the subject.

"Mentoring is the blind dating of social policy," said Jean Grossman, senior vice president for research at Public/Private Ventures, a public policy think tank. "A new match experiences the ups and downs that a normal relationship has, but they had no innate reason to get together."

And while there are reputable mentoring programs across the country — Big Brothers Big Sisters Association has matched mentors with kids for over 100 years and has 480 branches — children can actually come out of a mentoring relationship worse off than when they entered.

"Supervision is what makes a mentoring program work," said Grossman. "If the program doesn't have adequate infrastructure, a high proportion of the matches don't gel and break up."

Fitting mentoring into an already busy life can be a challenge for some volunteers. So assessing who can contribute what is crucial.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kentuckiana (serving 10 counties in Kentucky and southern Indiana), director Jeri Swinton said collaborations with public schools, faith-based organizations and the community are essential for a good match.

"We really try hard to prepare people for what they are getting into," said Swinton. "For a volunteer we think may need some time to figure out how to fit a friendship into a busy working life, we have a sports buddy program, and only ask for a four-month time commitment."

Some mentors commit to a full school year, helping kids with their homework or offering support on a weekly basis.

But is that really enough time to make a difference? Grossman found in her research that mentoring has "very little positive effects" in the first six months.

And getting through those first six months can be trying for both mentor and child.

Adults may initially get "very little back emotionally" from the child, said Grossman. And children are also more likely to be shy and withdrawn during that time, she noted.

That's especially dangerous because early breakups "can further justify in the kid's mind that they are no good," said Grossman. "There is this potential of actually yet again imposing another disappointment in the life of a kid, many of whom have had pretty intense lives."

And it's not just the child who can be discouraged.

"Mentors get told things like 'I'm really tired today because my mom's boyfriend was over last night and he beat her up,' then the mentor is sitting with this awful experience and not knowing what to do with it," said Grossman.

But thanks to support from the Bush administration, experts see a bright future for mentoring programs.

"Mentoring has really matured in the last seven or eight years," said Mark Fulop, director of the National Mentoring Center. "The national infrastructure is fairly substantial."

One of the newer programs the president wants to see funded is Mentoring for Children of Prisoners, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The goal is to help more than 100,000 children of incarcerated parents between the ages of 10 and 14 find an adult mentor, according to the National Mentoring Partnership.

President Bush isn't the only one pushing for more mentors. In September, his brother, Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, offered religious groups $80,000 in state funds to mentor struggling students in the public school system.

Frontline Outreach in Orlando, an urban Christian ministry, was selected by Gov. Bush to recruit what he hopes will be thousands of mentors from synagogues, mosques and churches.

"This is not related to a person of faith trying to convert people to their religion," Gov. Bush said. "This is a question of putting an arm around a child and saying, "'I care for you, let's read, let's do math together so you can do well in school.'"

While many mentor programs are thriving and helping kids grow into more confident, successful adults, the damages of a match-gone-wrong could hurt a child more than help him or her.

Nonetheless, the positives gained are shown in the numbers. "We have 658 mentors set up with kids now," said BBBSA's Swinton. "But we've also got 480 kids on a waiting list."