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The Need For Mentors Has Never Been Greater

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Watching a music awards show on television recently, I was struck by the number of winners who enthusiastically thanked someone who mentored them. If these talented young men and women benefitted by having a mentor, imagine how much mentoring could help the many at-risk kids who each day face social and economic pressures to disengage.

January is National Mentoring Month, a reminder of both the value of mentoring and the pressing need for caring adults to step forward and become involved in helping our youth.

There are more than 5,000 mentoring programs serving an estimated three million youth in the United States today. This sounds impressive, yet those of us in the field realize we are only scratching the surface when it comes to meeting the needs of at-risk youth -- youth who are struggling academically and socially because they lack caring adult guidance and support. An estimated 15 million young people nationwide are in need of a mentor. And the stakes are high: nationally, one out of four high school students will drop out this year.

I manage a mentoring program in a small community with a large number of families living below the poverty line. While we have found mentors for hundreds of children in our school district, we still have a steady waiting list of more than 140 kids who need and want a mentor in their life.

Most, if not all, of the other mentoring programs across the country share our experience. The tragedy is that for each year we make a child wait to be matched with a mentor, that child is at greater risk of slipping through the cracks.

Maria is typical of the youth we serve. She was raised by a single mom who worked two jobs to help make ends meet. As the oldest of four, Maria had too much responsibility taking care of her siblings and not enough time for schoolwork or socializing. Her fourth grade teacher felt that she would really benefit from the care and guidance that a mentoring relationship could provide, and that's when she was matched with her mentor, Susan. Today, Maria is in her second year of college, studying to be a social worker. It's been eleven years, and Susan continues to stand by her every step of the way.

We can offer many success stories like that of Maria and Susan. Certainly not all outcomes are so dramatic, nor do they need to be in order to be meaningful. More often success is measured simply in improved classroom behavior and performance that helps the child develop a feeling of optimism about the future.

Studies show that effective mentoring programs can help at-risk youth to confidently participate in society, in part by demonstrating that a healthy relationship with an adult is possible. Mentoring can lead to positive changes in attitude, behavior and academic performance among K-12 youth and a reduction in such at-risk behaviors as skipping class, dropping-out of school, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and gang involvement.

It's also important to point out that mentoring can change more than one life. We survey our mentors regularly and find that the overwhelming majority believe they are helping their charges in significant ways, both academically and by increasing their self-esteem. In turn, this makes mentors feel that what they are doing is important and emotionally gratifying.

There's no question that mentoring works; but organizations like mine need caring adults to get involved. The message of National Mentoring Month is simple -- if you can spend even just one hour a week mentoring, you can exert a meaningful influence on the life of an at-risk child.

The National Mentoring Partnership's website at www.mentoring.org can help you locate a program in your community. Get involved. As volunteer opportunities go, mentoring a child just might be the most rewarding of them all.

Kathy Witkowicki is the Executive Director of the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance in Sonoma, California.