Coalition To Launch Church-Based Mentoring Program

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The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition plans to launch a nationwide church-based mentoring program to reach 8- to 18-year-old African-American youths who have come into contact with the juvenile-justice system as nonviolent offenders.

The coalition hopes to recruit 20 churches in each of 50 cities across the country to "reclaim'' 10 youths apiece by linking them with mentors and helping them connect with education and employment opportunities.

The initiative, which has not yet been formally announced, has been developed over the past three months at a series of breakfast meetings at Shiloh Baptist Church here. Each week, 60 to 70 education, social-service, juvenile-justice, and religious officials gathered to try to formulate a response to what they describe as the social and spiritual crisis confronting African-American youths.

A pilot site will be based here, and participants are already recruiting mentors and developing plans for training and supporting them and the youths. They are also deciding how to evaluate the effort.

"We seek to transform our community here in Washington and set the pace for the nation,'' Mr. Jackson said.

'Weaving' Together Programs

Optimism and energy were in the air at last week's meeting as participants likened their task to that of making a basket, weaving together the many sectors of the nation's capital that work with at-risk youths.

"We have so many services in the city that people are not aware of,'' said Gil Dickinson, the field director of the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. But, by networking, he said, "we can help each other.''

For example, the program's education and employment committee wants to create a data base of services to assist area mentors, as well as the youths and their parents, according to Bert L'Homme, the committee's chairman and the director of City Lights, a private nonprofit school for emotionally disturbed and delinquent children.

The committee is also working to get officials of the District of Columbia public schools involved. A district spokeswoman said that Arthur Jenkins, the assistant director for attendance, has been appointed to represent the district and has attended every meeting but last week's.

Effort Wins Praise

Mr. Jackson last week described the leadership necessary to guide the initiative as "ethically conservative'' yet "politically revolutionary.''

Leaders in the mentoring field say the effort sounds promising.

Marc Freedman, the director of special projects for Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia organization that has extensively studied mentoring programs, said that while he is often fairly skeptical of mentoring efforts, he believes this plan "has a lot of merit.''

"It seems quite manageable,'' Mr. Freedman said. "I think the idea of 20 churches in 50 cities and 10 kids apiece is something that is accomplishable and in stark contrast to a lot of the campaigns where people are talking about one million kids a year.''

But, he also warned, "Class is often as powerful a barrier to mentoring as race is.''

"If a lot of these churches are middle-class churches,'' he continued, "the mentors, even the ones who came from the same background originally, will find there's some real social distance to bridge.''

"I think it's great for churches to become involved,'' observed Eugene Lang, the founder of the I Have A Dream Foundation, a widely copied mentoring program he launched in New York City in 1981.

However, he cautioned, sustained individual involvement must remain central.

"You have to stay with the children,'' Mr. Lang said. "A periodic phone call, a periodic visit, an occasional lunch or a movie is not enough.''

Vol. 13, Issue 04, Page 10

Published in Print: September 29, 1993, as Coalition To Launch Church-Based Mentoring Program
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