Many youngsters who come from distressed families and neighborhoods need extra support to achieve a high school education and to maintain self-worth.
Without support, many high-risk students become drop-outs, drug and alcohol abusers and teen parents.
Since 1988, a local program called Project RAISE (Raising Ambition Instills Self-Esteem) has given support to about 800 high-risk students in 13 inner city-schools by giving each a one-on-one volunteer mentor, a school-based coordinator and a financial guarantee for college.
The idea for Project RAISE began a decade ago with a millionaire New York businessman, Eugene Lang, who promised a group of elementary school students in Harlem that he would pay their college tuition if they graduated from high school. His promise brought dramatic success.
In Baltimore, Project RAISE -- a public-private partnership -- began in 1988 with sixth-grade students in seven inner-city schools. In 1990, Raise II was begun in six schools with six sponsors. All students will be followed through graduation.
Sponsors are churches and businesses that accept the task of working with the students, recruiting mentors and coordinating activities, meetings and training programs.
There is a paid coordinator in each participating school who acts as counselor, friend and role model to the children and monitors attendance, grades and behavior and keeps in contact with parents and school personnel. A volunteer mentor becomes a friend and supporter for one child with weekly contacts, trips and visits.
For four years, Russell C. Kelley, a biology professor at Morgan State University, has volunteered to Project RAISE. In fact, he helped initiate the first program here. Mr. Kelley has been a mentor and friend to 16-year-old Larry for three years and has been in contact with him each week.
''Larry has distress in his family and real personal difficulties, which forced him to redirect his school program," Mr. Kelley said. "He went to Job Corps for a time but is now enrolled in the Fort Smallwood Marine Institute in Pasadena, a day school for troubled youngsters, where he will receive social development, education, vocational training and more.''
Being a mentor, says Mr. Kelley, ''has given me a completely new area of relationship. I have been astounded dealing with children who have not had simple experiences, everyday happenings which I take for granted."
When asked if his student could measure up to all that Project RAISE could promise him, Mr. Kelley replies, ''he has much spirit but will require support. . . . But I believe he can make it.''
Mr. Kelley, who has taught biology at Morgan for 22 years, is the volunteer president of the board of the Northwest Baltimore Corp., a non-profit community agency working with neighborhood associations and merchants in Park Heights. He is former chairman of the board of MESA, (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement), a program targeting minorities and females interested in the sciences.
Mr. Kelley and his wife, Delores, have three grown children. She is a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly and a professor at Coppin State College. ''Our daughter, Norma Johnson, dances with an African dance troupe out of New Jersey. Our son, Russell III, is a contract negotiator with the Department of the Navy in Washington, and our youngest son, Brian, is obtaining his Ph.D. in engineering from Georgia Tech,'' says Mr. Kelley.
Young members of Project RAISE sign a pledge to do their best, be responsible, take pride in themselves, not to become a parent before high school graduation and to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
When they graduate and are eligible, they may attend a two- or four-year college or accredited public or private career school. Requirements are few but students must apply for and accept all available financial aid programs. Their college education must begin within two years of graduation -- college tuition will be guaranteed through five years of undergraduate education.
''The support Project RAISE gives is designed to sustain caring connections, which can make a dramatic difference in the lives of very high-risk children,'' says Zarva Taru, director of mentor support for Project RAISE. She hopes to add another 175 mentors to her list of approximately 500 before next November, she says.
The organization is administered by and located in the offices of the Baltimore Mentoring Institute at 805 N. Eutaw St. Funds for the non-profit community-based program come from organizations and individuals.
To become a volunteer mentor, a sponsor or to discuss other details of Project Raise, call Ms. Taru at 685-8316.