Wanted: More Militant Mentors for Mentoring

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It’s hard to name an approach to positive youth development more universally praised than mentoring. President after president has advocated adult mentoring of children. Just listen:

President George H. W. Bush, 1992: “We have got to find ways to have every kid have a mentor.”

President Bill Clinton, 1997: “Just think of what would happen in this country if every single child who needed a mentor had one.”

President George W. Bush, January 2002, in proclaiming National Mentoring Month: “A mentor’s involvement in the life of a
child can brighten that child’s future, help maintain healthy families, and help promote more vibrant communities.”

Remember, too, that at the 1997 Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, the virtues of mentoring were on the lips of everyone from Colin Powell to the leaders of Congress and national youth-serving organizations. Promoting mentoring was the key rationale for establishing America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth, which Powell chaired.

But the national track record on mentoring support over the past decade has been lame.

In the 1992 reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, Congress created the Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP). But with Congress diverting most of the funds to earmarked pet programs of uncertain merit, JUMP has never had enough money to really do its job. Funding grew from $7 million in 1994/95 to $14 million this year, for a total of $94 million – hardly a full-throated federal endorsement of mentoring.

Now, follow this depressing chain of events:

This past July, the president told a White House gathering that included officials from national mentoring groups, “We’ve set a goal amongst us to recruit 1 million mentors to provide love and comfort to the children around America.

I can’t think of more noble goal for the organizations here.”

In September, 66 new JUMP programs were funded, while 797 grant applications were rejected. Left unannounced was that these awards – to such groups as Tender Loving Care Ministries ($218,930) in Detroit, the Latin American Community Center ($220,000) in Wilmington, Del., and 15 Big Brothers Big Sisters’ affiliates – are the final JUMP.

That’s because in October Congress passed the Juvenile Justice Act of 2002, which eliminated JUMP. In its place Congress created a Delinquency Prevention Block Grant to the states – where the mentoring funds can be expected to disappear without a trace.
Fortunately, as Congress took with one hand, it gave with the other. Thanks to Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), Congress had already passed (last year) the Mentoring for Success Act as part of an education bill last year. In appropriating $17.5 million for the program, Congress recognized the inadequacy of in-school supports for youth.

The Education Department recently announced 70 of these Mentoring for Success grants, including awards to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Clara ($90,598), Calif., and the Blackfoot School District ($150,957) in Idaho. Yet these would-be three-year grants are not in President Bush’s budget for the 2003 fiscal year, which began in October.

The president has, however, asked Congress for $23 million for a new Justice Department program, Mentoring Children of Prisoners. The proposal is stuck in the midst of White House-Congressional budget wrangling.

So this leaves us with: JUMP, eliminated; Mentoring for Success, unfunded by the president; and Mentoring Children of Prisoners, with no certain funding.

Imagine the outrage if something similar happened to, say, peanut growers. But inquiries to the three national groups that should speak out most forcefully for funding to local direct-service programs found silence.

None of them – Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the National Mentoring Partnership and America’s Promise – is raising Cain over the hypocrisy of a president who “can’t think of a more noble goal” than mentoring, then helps to gut its funding.

Each of those big three mentoring promoters has enjoyed congressional earmarks in recent years. Last year Big Brothers Big Sisters’ non-competitive award was $3 million. In 2000 the National Mentoring Partnerships received $416,000, while America’s Promise led the troika with $7.5 million.

It is reasonable to speculate on the connection between these de facto staffing grants and the organizations’ lack of ardor on behalf of direct-service providers. Truth is, the success of national executives is measured by how much they raise for the headquarters and by the size of their staffs, not by what they deliver to face-to-face youth work.

Sadly, a comfortable organizational life for mentoring leadership is not necessarily compatible with unfettered advocacy for actual mentoring.

Too bad. “Just think of what would happen in this country” if Congress spent the same amount that it spent this year on law enforcement in the schools – $180 million – on mentoring.