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Friends for Life

Teaching by example, mentors point youths toward a successful, satisfying adulthood. President Clinton cheers this sort of volunteerism, as do some major corporations, which run their own programs.

May 16, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the current craze for mentoring seems surrounded by a warm and fuzzy glow, it's due to stories like that of Billy Hall and Tyrell Smith.

When they met two years ago through a workplace mentoring program at 20th Century Fox, the two barely spoke. Hall, a suit-and-tie family man from suburban Valencia, had built a successful career in the Dream Factory as a programming director for FX Networks. Tyrell was a sneakers-and-pierced-ear sophomore at Dorsey High School, in a neighborhood where dreams materialize with great effort.

An African American who had succeeded in the mostly white corporate world, Hall had volunteered because he wanted to be a role model. He hoped to show Tyrell, an African American being raised by a single mother, what minorities can accomplish with education, hard work, self-made contacts and focus.

Along with a group of about four dozen mentors and students, they met at Fox for programs and seminars two hours every other Thursday for two years. Tyrell's shyness melted after three weeks and the two became buddies, with Hall taking him on outings and showing him the tangible fruits of a regular and sizable paycheck.

Now about to graduate, Tyrell says he wants what Hall has and that his mentor gave him the "extra push" to go for it. This June, he will be among the 27% of students who graduate from Dorsey. He plans to go to Santa Monica College. He wants to be a cameraman. And, ultimately, he says, "When I'm out in the working field and doing what I want to do, I too will become a mentor and repeat the cycle."

Often held up as a miraculous, personally satisfying and cheap means of solving the nation's major social problems, mentoring received the equivalent of a standing ovation at last month's Presidents' Summit for America's Future in Philadelphia. Organizations nationwide pledged to recruit 2 million mentors by 2000. President Clinton said he aims for "an ongoing relationship with a caring adult or mentor" for every at-risk child in the country. In California, where $12 million has been allocated and another $21 million proposed to support local efforts, even the governor has found himself a "mentee"--a teenage boy who lives in the capital.

Research shows that certain one-on-one mentoring can make a dramatic and positive, if short-term, difference in the lives of disadvantaged youths. The benefits are even stronger, researchers say, when the one-to-one relationships are strung together with others to create a "caring climate," or a web of support through schools and youth organizations.

At the same time, the mentoring movement has had a checkered history of disappointments, frustrations and resentments. Mentors don't always show up; mentees aren't always magically transformed. Race can be an issue in the matches. Boundaries blur and trust can be threatened if a mentor stumbles upon an illegal activity or if a mentee's family asks for money.

The screening process alone, which opens volunteers' eyes to the reality, can be daunting. Only 15% of applicants survive to volunteer with Big Brothers, the nation's oldest mentoring organization.

Even supporters say it is foolish to hang hopes for massive social change on the most delicate of social forms: human relationships. "There is so much opportunity for hurt," said Marc Freedman, vice president of the Philadelphia-based Public / Private Ventures and author of the definitive book on the movement, "The Kindness of Strangers" (Jossey-Bass, 1993). More than instances of abuse, which are rare, he said, "There can be subtle and long-lasting damage if an adult comes in and imparts a destructive message about what their limitations are."

More than a century ago, a similar movement aimed to help the poor with "friendly visitors," middle-class women who tried to establish relationships with and serve as models for immigrants in urban slums. The movement began to fall apart when the genteel volunteers, sometimes perceived as patronizing, found people preferred to seek help from their friends and neighbors. A series of economic depressions finally "put the power of middle-class friendship in perspective," and friendly visiting gave way to the social work profession, Freedman wrote.

The subsequent success of Big Brothers / Big Sisters, first formed in 1921 to pair fatherless children with adult volunteers in long-term commitments, produced another wave of mentoring and many stories of lives changed because of "one caring adult." A third wave has been building over the last decade. In addition to Big Brothers / Big Sisters, there are now at least 280 mentoring programs providing 80,000 matches in California alone. State officials say there are 70,000 more youths on waiting lists.

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