Mentors offer helping hand to troubled kids

Assistance: A county program is looking for volunteers to work with children in need of guidance.

April 30, 2000|By Kimberly Marselas | Kimberly Marselas,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Among her many volunteer causes, Betty O'Leary's most challenging has been a 16-year-old girl.

The two met through a mentoring program operated by the county Department of Aging -- linking adults with children identified by their often-troubled lives as at risk for substance abuse and other problems.

"I have put in millions of hours," O'Leary said, only half-jokingly, of the relationship forged through the program. "I guess I just feel very close with her."

She has accompanied the Pasadena teen-ager as a mentor through countless hearings and meetings during 13 months -- a troubled period in which the girl was moved from an abusive home into two foster-care settings.

Although she is only 55, O'Leary is one of the oldest volunteers recruited as mentors by the Department of Aging's SCOPE program -- Seniors and Children Organized for Prevention and Education.

SCOPE was launched in 1998 as part of a countywide drug initiative and continues to match adults with emotionally needy children referred to the program from various county agencies.

Although it is a Department of Aging program, most of the 26 mentors are not senior citizens. The volunteers range in age from 21 to 77, but mentors are required to be only 18. Two applicants have been turned away since the start of the program, which urgently needs volunteers.

"We have a waiting list of too many," Robert Molder, the program director, said of the at-risk children in need of a mentor.

SCOPE participants are matched with at-risk children ages 8 to 16. The mentors, all chosen by Molder after an application process, go through brief training sessions before beginning their weekly meetings with the children -- many coming from abusive homes. Others are referred to SCOPE after a parent serves time in jail.

But no matter their age or their family situation, Molder said, the children share this need: someone to listen to them.

O'Leary and the Pasadena girl often talk while shopping or working out in kick boxing classes. Although the SCOPE program requires one-hour meetings once a week, O'Leary, an executive assistant with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Washington, quickly found herself spending much more time with the girl than she had expected, even taking her to "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" on Thursday.

"As soon as I met her, I just loved her from the beginning," O'Leary said of the girl, who was then turning 15. But the relationship had a rocky start. "Her mother did not want me there. I had to walk on eggshells."

The girl -- whose name is not being used at the request of the county Department of Social Services -- had been abused by her parents and was moved to foster care.

O'Leary said she found herself drawn into an active role in what she considered a "rescue mission" -- accompanying the girl to court hearings and taking on the problems of red tape in maintaining their relationship through changing family settings.

Removed from her home, the girl continued to struggle and failed to get along with her new foster family. O'Leary said her heart sank after the girl's first set of foster parents became unsupportive of the mentoring relationship.

The girl was reassigned to another foster family, and the mentoring relationship thrived in that setting. The girl has met two of the program's goals, staying in school and avoiding drugs and alcohol.

"My mentoring experience is probably one of the more unusual ones you'll hear, but it just shows what you'll do for a child who needs help," O'Leary said.

But most mentors do not find themselves in court or dealing with complicated social services problems.

Jay Pendarvis of Laurel began meeting regularly with a then-9-year-old in February 1999 and said he has seen steady improvement since the relationship began.

"When I first met [the boy] he was real quiet," said Pendarvis, 26, a database administrator with a Virginia company and a part-time student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "He wouldn't open up to anybody, and he wouldn't respect anyone, especially anyone who was trying to help him. I think he kind of resented the help. He has a lot more respect now."

The boy's mother died when he was younger, and his father is in prison, so he lives with an aunt in Severn. Pendarvis said the aunt provides a good home and stays involved in the boy's life, but as one of several children in the home, he benefits from the added attention of a mentor.

The boy has opened up to Pendarvis about major concerns -- such as his father's pending release from prison -- and the two work on his homework, trying to improve his grades.

Not all mentoring relationships succeed, or have happy endings.

Shelley Vaughn, 37, of Crofton said she never met any goals with the 17-year-old she worked with. The girl ran away in January.

Although Vaughn said they had a good relationship, she said the girl was in a disruptive home environment and had been going through rough times emotionally and was diagnosed as manic-depressive.

"For a 17-year-old, she had quite a long history of difficult domestic situations, but she felt comfortable telling me things," Vaughn said.

But Vaughn struggled to mesh her religious beliefs with the girl's pattern of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity.

"I've always made my own morals and values clear," Vaughn said. "I've told her I didn't approve of things she was doing, but I've always tried to keep the lines of communication open."

Even with the unhappy ending, Vaughn said, she was satisfied with her time as a mentor and hopes to try again, possibly with a younger child, after she adjusts to her new job.

Vaughn's sense of satisfaction is shared by Pendarvis and O'Leary.

"It's just a matter of taking the time," O'Leary said. "Most people don't understand how much an hour can mean in someone's life."

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