America’s Promise Mentoring Impact is Foggy in Philly




PHILADELPHIA—It is a mentor’s mecca, this town of cheesesteaks, hoagies and sticky buns.


That was one of the prime reasons for Philadelphia’s selection as the prized site three years ago for the President’s Summit for America’s Future and the gala launching of America’s Promise-The Alliance for Youth.

Of the five AP “promises”set back then for improving the lives of 2 million at-risk kids – mentoring, safe places, healthy start, marketable skills and community service – mentoring has always been considered by AP to be “the most important,” in the words of AP Chief of Staff Bill Smullen.. As the birthplace of Big Brothers (1915) and the Greater Philadelphia Federation of Settlements (1906), serving neglected and delinquent youth in low-income neighborhoods, no city seemed better poised to meet the challenge to boost mentoring.


Today Philadelphia illustrates not only the achievements that can be won but the obstacles that can befall those with the best of intentions. While there have been plenty of pledges and a whirlwind of support for companies providing mentors, it is impossible to tell whether the “promise movement” has increased mentoring here. Statistics don’t exist. For every upscale Rittenhouse Hotel, which dove into mentoring after being inspired by the summit and now hosts nine other mentor programs, there’s a Checkmate after-school program, whose struggles in a hardscrabble neighborhood have not eased and whose program director says, “Securing mentors continues to be a problem.”


As AP Chairman Colin Powell prepares to mark AP’s third anniversary this month with a progress report released at a large-scale youth conference in Orlando, Fla., Philadelphia reflects the opportunities and challenges as the euphoria fades from the summit.


“In 1996 [before AP], there were some 200,000 to 250,000 mentors in the country,” says Gary Walker, president of the Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures (P/PV). “Within two years, this number nearly doubled, but since then has leveled off.” Walker attributes the flattening out to adults working longer hours with less free time, and foundations decreasing or eliminating mentoring funds. When adults do apply to be mentors, youth-serving agencies struggle with the cost of criminal background checks.


Harder Road

Although prognostications were tossed about like confetti by pledge-makers at the summit, the nitty-gritty of turning promises into real services for kids here fell to a one-woman operation that runs on fumes. Philadelphia’s Promise, with a three-year budget of $270,000 underwritten by the city, was charged with securing pledges, facilitating best practices, monitoring the progress of pledge-makers and developing strategies to provide youngsters with the five AP promises.


Philadelphia’s Promise Executive Director Mary Strasser appears to be everywhere and wears many hats. Administrators at businesses and youth-serving agencies tell of being inspired by her work, which includes direct training of mentors. There is no doubt that the luster of the summit had some immediate impact.


“When Presidents Bush, Ford, 10 senators and John Travolta stayed here during the time they participated in the America’s Promise Summit, it motivated us to get involved with Philadelphia’s Promise right away,” recounts David Benton, president and general manager of the Rittenhouse Hotel at the city’s famed Rittenhouse Square.


The hotel now participates in a workforce training program for physically and mentally disabled youth. The program, called Work-Stream and operated by the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, guarantees a job “for the rest of their work history,” says Benton.


“We want them to stay with us,” he adds, pointing out that 11 participants have been hired as full-time employees in positions such as assistant doorman, pastry shop worker, cook for the employees, laundry room helper and health club assistant. The hotel houses nine other mentor programs, and last fall hosted an all-day conference (of about 100) for other local hotels and corporations to persuade them to participate in mentoring programs.


But getting beyond anecdotes to measure AP’s impact has always been difficult (“On and Off the Wagon: America’s Promise at Two,” Youth Today, July/August 1999.). At the national level, the AP promises have slowly peeled away as a function of practicality: pledges to provide mentoring have been taken by themselves as a measure of success. The question for youth-serving agencies is whether there would be real change in terms of resources available to serve more youth.


Just try finding the answer in Philadelphia.

Chewed, Not Crunched

Some 27,000 youngsters are involved in mentoring activities here, involving some 60 organizations. But numbers regarding Philadelphia’s Promise’s impact on local mentoring programs are being chewed and savored like the city’s famous large, doughy pretzels, rather than crunched and released to the public.


“We’ve tried to get numbers out of Philadelphia [from the major mentoring organizations] for an upcoming publication of ours,” says Walker of the P/PV, “but we couldn’t get them.” He adds that requests from all the other cities on his list were honored.


Mentor-mentee matches at BBBS of Philadelphia rose from 752 in 1996 to 875 last year, says recruitment director Cheryl Dennis. But figures for pre-AP years, she said, “were hard to find.” But find them she did after a lapse of several days. Her comment: “We still have 200 children unassigned to a mentor.”


How about at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia? “This will take time,” cautions Education Director Diane Datcher after a request for pre- and post-summit mentor figures. “We have seven clubs in Philadelphia. I have my count. But the other clubs have their count.” She has no 1996 figures for her club. Maybe the director of development can help when she returns from a trip. Informed the deadline for the information is on a Monday, Datcher says, “She’ll be back Tuesday.”


Such encounters prompt Cindy Sipe, a P/PV writer and research analyst, to complain that “this is a tremendous problem.” Many organizations don’t keep track of what they do, she says, while others have different ways of storing data that are confusing and perplexing. The result: incomplete data. P/PV, a major player in the youth mentoring field for its research and publications, is sub-contracted by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) National Mentoring Center in Portland, Ore., for training and technical assistance for the office’s Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP). (Since 1995 JUMP has given out $56.5 million to youth mentoring programs nationwide. It funds five sites in Pennsylvania, but currently none in Philadelphia.)


Officials at the D.C.-based National Mentoring Partnership and America’s Promise headquarters in Alexandria, Va., do not keep statistics of performances by city mentoring agencies. They insist that the person with the data in Philadelphia is Mary Strasser.


‘Numbers Miss the Point’

Is mentoring up since the summit, Strasser is asked? The key to successful mentoring is “leveraging resources,” she says. She notes that effective mentoring activities and approaches “are not frozen, they are fluid.”

But is there more mentoring in Philadelphia now than before the summit? Strasser points to local corporations’ contributions to after-school, on-site and group mentoring endeavors over the past three years. At the summit, Philadelphia’s Promise had commitments from more than 350 local businesses, community-based organizations, colleges and universities and faith-based organizations. Philadelphia’s Promise literature says many did not reach the goals of doubling or tripling their volunteer efforts by this year, but others exceeded their goals.

“Numbers miss the point,” says Todd Bernstein, a Philadelphia’s Promise board member and president of his own consulting firm, Citizenship Project. “If an organization says we’ve got 10 people performing 100 service hours, we rely on their integrity that this information is accurate.”

Strasser is a respected professional in the Philadelphia youth field. One of her admirers, Tom McKenna, former head of BBBS of America and now with the Center for Youth Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, states: “Strasser helped focus energy here and bring people of like minds on the mentoring issue together. While I can’t claim specificity, her efforts have had a ripple effect.”

For instance, Strasser recently co-hosted the United Way-sponsored conference, “Beyond Tradition: Youth Development 2000,” that featured presentations on intergenerational mentoring, faith-based mentoring, recruiting mentors and how to be a good mentor.

“If a parent calls and asks you to babysit their kid, turn them down,” instructs Trish Bradley, a program coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Federation of Settlements and trainer for the conference’s “How to be a Great Mentor” workshop. You are not a parent either, she tells the mentors. “You’re there to be a good listener, to give a hug” – and to give the youngster an “awareness of community … its libraries, museums, sports activities.”

What youngsters don’t need, she emphasizes, is someone who “lectures, preaches and always knows what’s right without allowing any input from the youngster.”


But BBBS’ Dennis, asked if Philadelphia’s Promise had increased the number of mentors in her organization’s programs, says, “I would be hard-pressed to say ‘yes.'” Dennis attributes any increases to the “collective efforts” of all local agencies, including hers, in promoting volunteerism through radio, TV and billboards.


Too Few Good Men

Finding enough men is the biggest problem. Even with 700 mentors at BBBS (including 450 men), most of the 200 youths waiting for a match are boys, Dennis says. (Last year United Way funding covered nearly one-third of BBBS Philadelphia’s $861,476 operating budget; it also gave $162,327 to Big Sisters of Philadelphia, a separate organization.)


In North Philadelphia, some nine subway stops and a bus ride from the conference, resides the Checkmate after-school tutorial and life-skills program. Although located in a beleaguered community called the Badlands, it has gained a reputation (especially among local educators and the Philadelphia Police Department) for being expertly effective at giving “police contact” middle-school youth the skills needed to continue to attend and graduate from high school. But the complaints staff have always made hold true today (“Summit: True Help for Badlands Kids?” Youth Today, May/June ’97).


If not for the ninth-grade peer mentors who return to Checkmate, program director Wiley says, “we’d be in real trouble.” Four of them take part in tutorials, recreation programs and weekend field trips.


“I’m aware of the efforts of the people downtown,” he says of Philadelphia Promise, “but they’re afraid to come up here.”

Some Pay, Some Don’t

Back downtown at the mentoring workshop, Bradley speaks about a fiscally gritty problem for mentoring organizations: coughing up the money for criminal and child abuse background checks of mentor applicants.


Paying $20 for police checks for each applicant “can be a back-breaking amount of money for a small community-based operation like ours,” Bradley says.


She cites her organization’s Settlement House Basketball League, which attracts some 380 youth from every area of the city. “A mentor is required for every seven kids … You do the math,” she says. (The cost for background checks at that ratio: $1,080.)


But not every agency pays. The Boys & Girls Club asks the applicant to cover the cost. And two years ago the Pennsylvania Legislature waived the fee for the state’s 32 BBBS agencies.


“This is an expensive line item,” acknowledges BBBS of Philadelphia Executive Director Tom Weber. “It can cost up to $10,000 annually.” He credits the state association of BBBS agencies with influencing the lawmakers “by holding legislative breakfasts for two years.”

Strasser, who was involved in this effort, says she is now active in a national effort to bring about a national clearinghouse where agencies could find out (for free) if a prospective mentor committed a crime outside the state of application (something a statewide check doesn’t do).


Gobble, Gobble

It is unclear how these efforts will be affected by the merging of Philadelphia’s Promise, the One-to-One mentoring program and The Greater Philadelphia Mentoring Partnership next month. The United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which houses all three organizations and terms them “initiatives,” will merge them into what will be known as its Community Impact Division. Strasser will become the vice president of the new unit.


“Functions were being overlapped and duplicated and resources were skimpy, so this move will give us more leeway as we broaden our efforts in the area of youth development,” says United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s president and CEO, Christine James-Brown.


“Philadelphia’s Promise will not sunset,” Strasser says. “It will serve as a branding opportunity [press releases, logo] in our strategy to increase resources.” Strasser says Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) recently allotted Philadelphia’s Promise a piece of the  “Communities of Promise” pie. “I believe it will be around $100,000, but it hasn’t been officially determined,” she says. The money, she says, would go to United Way as the “fiscal manager.”


James-Brown and Strasser admit their new unit is still in the thinking stage. They will be hearing from P/PV’s Walker, who has detected another trend. The problem now arising is that “high-risk kids 12, 13 and up” may not get the mentor attention they need because the national trend is toward more school-based mentoring programs, as opposed to after-school community-based efforts.



“The mentors feel safer on the school grounds and the insurance companies feel better about it than they do off school grounds with community agencies.”

At Checkmate, where the action is, Wiley still hopes for help from downtown for his after-school program. He thinks of the kids he serves and says, “I can’t give up on them.” 



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