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Mentors for boys difficult to enlist

Lisa Grzyboski, Courier-Post Online, January 20, 2008

Terrance Hobson speaks from personal experience when he says mentor volunteers are difficult to find.

Every year the Volunteers of America youth services director enrolls 80 Camden teens who have served time in juvenile detention in a program aimed at helping them turn around their lives. Each of the mostly male teens is supposed to receive an adult mentor of the same gender, Hobson said.

But in the three years between 2003 and 2006 -- a period when 240 youths participated in the Ready4Work program -- roughly 21 adults volunteered.

"A lot of the boys need strong male mentors," Hobson said. "We've solicited churches, professional organizations, college fraternities, graduate-level fraternities. We've gotten some people, but we expected to do a lot better."

Finding mentors, particularly male ones, is a constant struggle, said Robert Jakubowski, the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Camden and Gloucester Counties.

Mentor programs face the typical challenges of attracting volunteers, namely people who are too busy with work and family responsibilities.

For programs that help mainly Camden youths, there's also the uneasiness and sometimes outright fear people have of coming into the city because of the perception of crime and violence, said Judyann Gillespie, the adolescent counseling director for the Center for Family Services, which runs a mentoring project that serves Camden youths with at least one parent in the criminal justice system.

"It's fear of the unknown," Hobson said. "What we encourage people to do is spend a day with one of our staff members and one of our kids. Those few hours will change their preconceived notions. What they come out discovering is they've met a great kid."

But sometimes it's the prospect of a one-on-one relationship that keeps people, especially men, from mentoring, Jakubowski said. At a time when the media is dominated by stories about sex offenders and child sex abuse, some people worry about being unjustly accused of inappropriate touching or worse.

"We tell them that kids don't make that stuff up," Jakubowski said.

"We also tell them they can do things to protect themselves like hanging out only in public places or joining a school-based mentoring program."

When it comes to men, however, sometimes nothing can be said to persuade them to be a one-on-one mentor, program directors said.

Jakubowski believes men, who have traditionally been the breadwinners in a community, aren't inclined to do something without some form of compensation.

Men also tend to gravitate toward youth sports and other group activities when it comes to helping kids, Jakubowski said. And many men want to see immediate results for their effort, which doesn't necessarily happen with mentoring, he said.

The result is a lack of male volunteers for boys and young men, who end up sitting on waiting lists or never getting a mentor.

Conversely, there's often a glut of female mentors.

While mothers, many of whom are a single parent, are eager to sign up their sons for a mentor, they're less inclined to sign up their daughters.

"Moms feel like the mentors are trying to replace them," Jakubowski said.

"We're not doing that," he said. "We're just adding another friend, another adult to talk to."

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