Mentors are inspiration for success

Partners: Across Baltimore, employees of scores of businesses have joined a movement to provide example and encouragement to inner-city youths through one-on-one relationships.

April 02, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

His first view of Baltimore from the 35th-floor executive offices of Legg Mason Wood Walker was a bit different from the picture Donnell Gould was used to.

Among a clutch of professionals, with the city at his feet, Donnell, an eighth-grader at William H. Lemmel Middle School on the city's west side, could imagine himself working with them one day on the trading floor or in an elegant conference room.

It was a first step. Senior Vice President Jeffrey W. Durkee is a mentor, Donnell his charge. Together, they are part of an old-fashioned idea that has gained fresh momentum across the country, and in Baltimore in particular.

A few years ago, 1,500 inner-city Baltimore students had the support of mentors. Today, the number is 6,500 and growing. In the next four years, mentoring advocates hope to reach as many as 20,000 youngsters ages 8 to 18. That would be about half the number estimated to need them.

"Baltimore is doing phenomenally," said Robin Pringle, vice president of the National Mentoring Partnership in Washington. Her most recent annual figures show 950 new mentors in Baltimore between June 1997 and May 1998, compared with 304 in Boston, 780 in Philadelphia and 1,000 in New York. "Baltimore is like a shining star."

Four years ago, a local mentoring conference in Baltimore drew 100 people to its initial gathering. This month, more than 500 people are scheduled to attend.

Spurred by the work of the Baltimore Mentoring Partnership and the support of a network of city business leaders, employees at scores of corporations, churches, hospitals, universities and private organizations are embarking on one-on-one relationships with inner-city children to provide inspiration and opportunity for successful lives and careers.

Traditionally, a high percentage of those students encounters problems such as pregnancy, substance abuse, poor grades and low aspirations, which short-circuit their prospects.

Under the old mentoring model, social relationships shaped the programs. Mentors would pick up a student on a Saturday for a movie, ice skating or basketball clinic. Today, the programs strongly emphasize education and careers.

A 10-year study of 1,000 students in Baltimore showed that those with mentors had a 65 percent graduation rate from high school, compared with 25 percent for students who were not mentored.

It is early in the process, and Legg Mason's Durkee knows he is merely sowing the first seeds with Donnell. But the fledgling relationship has left both hopeful. They have exchanged several letters recently celebrating Donnell's improved grades. They met for another mentoring session at Legg Mason last week.

"I don't know how long it will last, but I hope it's a longtime thing," Donnell said. "It shows me the way you're supposed to act and talk to people in business. It could help me determine what I want to do."

Among the professionals he has met there is an African-American broker who also attended Lemmel Middle School.

"It gives them a sense of what's possible, that's part of it," Durkee said. "Usually a handful of outstanding students at these schools get picked for most things. The kind of kids we're bringing in are good kids who sometimes just get lost."

One reason Baltimore is outperforming other cities in mentoring is the support of influential leaders from a cross section of the city who have the influence to open doors and resources. They include people like Durkee; James Piper III of O'Conor Piper & Flynn real estate agency; Hardin Marion, managing partner of the Tydings & Rosenberg law firm; and the Rev. Bryan Claxton, pastor of New Creation Christian Church.

Much of the growth also reflects the work of Linda Stewart, executive director of the Baltimore Mentoring Partnership, who has reached out to get such people on board and trained in mentoring, and to build collaboration among the city's mentoring programs.

"Mentoring can be a difficult job," Stewart said. "You're dealing with adolescents who don't necessarily trust adults. Consistency is important. If people don't stick with it, it's really hard on the kids."

Troy Quinn, an admissions officer at Morgan State University, has participated in a number of mentoring programs through the university since going to work there in 1996. "The challenge is just being able to channel the energy to get them [children] focused on their futures," said Quinn, 30. "They're not daily or on a regular basis involved with individuals in careers, especially other males, and that somewhat hinders them."

Others say they have learned from early mistakes and are revising their mentoring strategy.

Johns Hopkins Hospital began an ambitious seven-year program in 1991, taking on 60 of the city's most troubled kids. To qualify, a student had to have problems across the board -- weak family support, poor attendance, failing grades, disciplinary trouble.

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