Mayor's mentor program lifts goal

But faith-based effort creates ill will among some clergy groups

September 03, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In his State of the City address in February, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced the birth of Baltimore Rising, an ambitious church-based mentoring initiative he called "an all-out crusade" to save the 100 youths most likely to kill or be killed.

Six months later, nearly 100 youths have been matched with mentors from inner-city churches, and nearly 200 others are being monitored by full-time youth workers hired by the city.

And what began as a goal of reaching 100 youths has expanded tenfold, to 1,000 youths by year's end.

"We're starting to do good things. It's way too early to measure outcomes," O'Malley said. "But we're actively involved in the lives of 300 more kids this summer than we were at this time last summer."

But the project has also created ill will.

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, one of O'Malley's key African-American political backers, who was announced as an important partner in Baltimore Rising, said he has been left out of the loop.

And in launching his initiative, O'Malley has alienated the city's two largest predominantly black clergy groups, which in response have launched their own youth initiative. Members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore bitterly complain that they were excluded from the program after they raised concerns about it. O'Malley asserts the ministers merely walked away.

Baltimore Rising combines two of the more popular trends in addressing social problems: mentoring at-risk youth and collaborating with faith-based organizations. It is modeled on programs in Boston, where churches in the Ten Point Coalition contributed to a sharp decline in juvenile murder; and Philadelphia, where Mayor John Street has made city-church youth outreach his signature initiative.

Baltimore Rising focuses on youths in the three most violent police districts - Eastern, Western and Northwestern - which accounted for half of the city's 262 homicides last year.

The youths are referred by agencies that serve the young - such as the city schools, the state departments of Juvenile Justice and Human Resources, and nonprofit organizations.

But not all of the at-risk youths will be assigned a mentor. At some point, organizers realized that a hardened juvenile offender might have difficulty developing a relationship with a churchgoer, so they have reserved the mentoring component for youths who share certain risk factors but have not had contact with the juvenile justice system.

The harder cases, those who already have juvenile records, will be assigned monitors, full-time youth workers hired by the city who will check in with the youths weekly and help them with services such as job training, drug treatment and education.

"One is prevention, the other is intervention," Jamal Moses, who directs Baltimore Rising for O'Malley, said of the mentoring and monitoring. "By the end of December, I'm hoping to have at least 500 in each one of those categories."

So far, 98 mentors, who have been recruited from about two dozen participating churches, have been paired with young people, about half boys and half girls. About 120 other adults have either completed their three three-hour training sessions and are waiting for completed background checks or are still in training.

The mentors, who make a yearlong commitment, are expected to meet with their assigned youth at least once a week in addition to a weekly telephone conversation.

Since June, Ricardo Baylor, a deacon at First John Tabernacle Baptist Church in East Baltimore, has been meeting with Octavian Lewis, a 15-year-old sophomore at Northern High School. During their mentoring sessions, they play basketball, go to the movies or grab a bite to eat while they talk about Lewis' week or whatever is on the teen's mind.

"I give him suggestions," said Baylor, 47. "Keep your grades up. I talk to him about helping out his mother. Just giving him an idea of a young man's responsibility."

On the monitoring side, 197 youths, three-quarters of them boys, are being supervised by more than a dozen youth workers.

Every two weeks, Baltimore Rising's progress is monitored at a KidStat meeting, an adaptation of O'Malley's CitiStat, the city's computerized tracking system that is guiding the mayor's efforts to make government more efficient. KidStat assembles the partners involved in Baltimore Rising - including police, social workers, juvenile justice officials and the mayor - and reviews the number of contacts made in the previous two weeks, any referrals made, school attendance and criminal violations.

Researchers say mentoring, particularly when mentors meet with their youth at least three times a month, can achieve the ambitious goals Baltimore Rising has set for itself. But there are caveats.

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