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The number of adults mentoring at-risk youngsters has grown so significantly in recent years that the phenomenon now may be said to amount to a national movement. In The Kindness of Strangers, Marc Freedman, the director of special projects for Public/Private Ventures, details the potential and the obstacles inherent in this type of volunteer work. The following excerpt focuses on the obstacles:

Two problems that make it difficult for mentors and youths to connect are limited time and social distance. First, mentoring is bound up in a paradox concerning time. Much of mentoring's currency emanates from the growing concern that adults in our society are too busy to spend time with kids. However, in the words of [Steven and Mary Alice] Hamilton [the authors of Mentoring Programs: Promise and Paradox], efforts to "fill the gap run directly into the problems that created it.'' The adults who volunteer as mentors don't have time to spend with the young people with whom they are matched.

This problem is particularly acute because the adults targeted by mentoring programs are often the same individuals whose work soaks up all their time. These are lawyers, managers, physicians, and other professional "role models'' who are putting in 60, 70, or even 80 hours a week on the job and often do not have time to spend with their own kids.

In The Overworked American, the Harvard economist Juliet Schor demonstrates that Americans work harder than any other country in the world, with the exception of Japan. Not only are two-income households the norm, but each individual worker is toiling longer hours. Since 1970, for example, the average American worker now puts in an estimated 164 more hours of paid labor annually--equivalent to an additional month of work. The result, according to Ms. Schor, is "a profound structural crisis of time'' for Americans.

This structural crisis not only makes it more difficult to relax, but makes it more difficult to undertake what the economist Robert Kuttner calls "the diverse unpaid activities that a viable society necessarily requires, from civic participation to voluntary caring for the young and the old.''

Given the competing commitments and countervailing forces pulling at these mentors, it is not surprising that Big Brothers/Big Sisters nationally has 40,000 young people on the waiting list--while 70,000 are matched. It is also no surprise that even the most committed and exceptional mentors find it challenging to sustain their involvement. In general, mentors are much better at signing up than showing up.

However, the failure to connect comes not just from mentors, but from students as well. Forging a relationship takes two people, and programs have experienced just as much difficulty getting young people to show up and stick with it.

First, many youths, even those in great need of support, are wary of adults--having been let down by them in the past, and living in environments where violence and other forms of abuse are common. Furthermore, mentoring is often an unfamiliar notion to these youths. As a result, many young people are slow to embrace these relationships, and the initiative often rests with the mentors.

However, it is often difficult to contact youths living in poverty. Many do not have a telephone, much less an answering machine. And teenagers are notoriously bad about returning phone calls, even when they get the message and have access to a phone.

The difficulty in getting middle-class mentors and disadvantaged youths to spend sufficient time together is all the more problematic because of the great gulfs that exist between their worlds. Mentors and youths must bridge this divide before they can forge a connection. As one adult observes, "We mentors represent such a foreign life to them. ... I know she hears what I say, she remembers things, and she attempts to ask questions ... but the connection is limited.''

This comment cuts to the issue of social distance, present in varying degrees in most orchestrated mentoring relationships that bring together mainstream adults and poor youths. This dis-tance begins with a generation gap. It is often accentuated by lifestyle differences, and in many cases, by ethnic background as well. But the most profound distance, which is shared by mentors of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds, is that of class.

The successful "role models'' targeted as mentors often have little in common with the youths. Unfamiliar worlds collide; different languages are spoken. The partners react in ways that are perplexing to each other. Often neither has known anyone like the other before. Not surprisingly, the potential for misunderstanding is considerable.

Reprinted with permission from The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth, and the New Voluntarism, by Marc Freedman. Copyright 1993 Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, San Francisco. All rights reserved.

Vol. 13, Issue 20

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