Wanted: big brothers and sisters
September 3, 2004
Special bond ... after rigorous screening, Adam Taloni, 27, was matched with Koray Ant, 11, and now takes him on weekly outings. Photo: Fiona-Lee Quimby
Mentoring programs have prevented troubled children from going off the rails, but not all have been successful, writes Adele Horin.
The first time Michael Pollard went fishing, Joe Furolo was there to show him how to tie a hook. The first time Michael went to a fancy restaurant, Furolo was there to show him round the menu. Furolo taught Michael to cook, and later to drive; and even though Michael thought golf was for snobs, he took to it with alacrity after Furolo introduced him to the game.
Michael was 13 and Joe aged 40 when the pair met nine years ago in a mentoring program run by Big Sister Big Brother (known in other states as Big Brothers Big Sisters).
Michael was in trouble at school, and dominated by a household of adoring, feisty women - grandmother, mother, aunties, sisters - who thought he needed a male in his life.
Furolo turned out to be that man. The oldest of four brothers, Furolo was a born nurturer. For about six years, Furolo spent every day with Michael, and after Michael joined the army at 18, he continued to be his friend. "The first time Michael and I met, we clicked," Furolo says. "He's 22 now, and it's a long time since he's been a troubled kid."
Mentoring has taken off in Australia, aided by the Federal Government's $4.4 million Mentor Marketplace program, which funds a variety of non-profit organisations. And if Mark Latham wins the election, he has promised to deliver 10,000 new mentors by the end of 2006, provide $33 million for programs and establish a national mentoring foundation.
But at a national conference on mentoring in Melbourne this week, Jean Rhodes, the foremost US expert on mentoring, issued a cautionary note. Speaking by live telelink, she reported that mentoring posed risks, as well as benefits. And the risks had little to do with child molestation - an infrequent occurrence in mentoring programs.
The risks lay in the potential for children who have suffered loss, rejection or abandonment to be let down by mentors. "My strong contention," Rhodes says, "is that vulnerable children would be better left alone than paired with mentors who do not recognise and honour the enormous responsibility they have been given."
The enthusiasm for mentoring reflects the faith society places in the power of a one-to-one relationship between a caring adult and a vulnerable child. And it doesn't hurt that politicians assume a social program based on volunteers will be cheap to run.
But in mentoring programs around the world, the boys and girls who fade from programs, and the failed relationships they represent, are overshadowed by the more compelling success stories of their peers. In her book Stand by Me, Rhodes writes, "Since the youth typically blame themselves when relationships fail ... the shortcomings of programs and the volunteers they recruit are largely unnoticed."
In Australia, no research has been undertaken on the long-term effects of mentoring, even though formal programs began here almost 30 years ago. From the first Big Brother Big Sister program, there are now dozens, if not hundreds, or mentoring programs. Some, like the original, are based on a friendship model or, like Plan-it Youth and the Smith Family programs, on helping young people through school or post-school transitions; some are tailored to juvenile offenders, homeless young people, or former state wards.
But in the US, a national evaluation of the Big Brother Big Sister progam in the 1990s proved to be illuminating.
The evaluation followed two groups of youngsters - one assigned to mentors, the other to a waiting list - over 18 months. It showed mentoring was beneficial. But it was no panacea.
On average, the mentored youth skipped fewer classes, drank and smoked less, were less physically aggressive, and did better at school. But both groups developed increased social, emotional, and relationship problems. The youth with mentors simply worsened at a slower rate. Some mentoring relationships, however, were more effective than others, and shed light on the ingredients needed for success.
For a start, kids who were less troubled to begin with got the most out of the mentoring relationship. Regular and frequent contact counted. And so did the duration of the relationship.
Matches that lasted more than a year provided the best results. Short-lived matches which ended in the first three months could damage a young person's self-esteem. But half the relationships studied ended prematurely. Mentors married, moved, suffered ill health, or quit because the initial rewards were low, or the young people were defiant, resistant or demanding. In some cases, the young people were ill-equipped to hold up their end of the bargain.
The results highlighted the importance of screening, training and supervising mentors, and making careful matches - all of which takes serious money. But at the heart of all good mentoring relationships, Rhodes says, is a strong emotional bond that develops over time. If the emotional closeness between mentor and young person is lacking, the relationship is unlikely to last the distance.
Furolo never saw himself as a rescuer, a teacher, or even a role model. He saw himself as a committed friend to Michael. Eventually Michael "was like my fifth brother", he says. But the emotional bonds developed slowly.
And there were hiccups along the way. In the first year, Michael did not talk much. Later he twice got into minor trouble with the law. But Furolo was in for the long haul: "I wasn't just doing it for Michael," he said. "I was getting significant satisfaction from having a role in his life."
Usually they watched videos, and then went for a walk, but sometimes Furolo, a business analyst for Qantas, exposed Michael to the other world of golf and restaurants. Before Furolo got married, he religiously kept up his weekly commitment.
Michael was no scholar, and was disruptive at school. Furolo intervened with the headmaster. As a non-family member, he could question and challenge. He reminded Michael's family of the boy's positive qualities - his loyalty, reliability and sense of humour - when they overlooked them. And when Michael became the first member of his family to finish year 10, he joined in their rejoicing.
"He could have gone off the rails," says Furolo. "Many of his friends did, and ended up in jail."
Michael says: "Joe gave heaps of help, it's hard to say how, just knowing he was always there to help me if I was in trouble." Now that Michael is finishing his four-year contract in the army, Furolo has presented him with a round-the-world ticket, saved from years of accumulated FlyBuy points.
As a successful mentor, Furolo cautions others about the pitfalls, including an urge to be a saviour, and to focus too much on goals "instead of on happiness and friendship".
But some youngsters are easier to mentor than others. The Salvation Army's Oasis Youth Support Network cut back its mentoring program after disappointments. Its clients were homeless young people, disconnected from families and often manipulative in relationships. "It takes a special person to mentor these kids," says Captain Paul Moulds, the director of the service.
A woman mentor who developed a long-term, close relationship with a 17-year-old youth was devastated when he broke into her house. "Months later he contacted us from interstate and wanted us to pass on his remorse," Moulds says.
In the past decade, many small mentoring programs in Australia have languished for lack of funds, according to a report for the Federal Government by Urbis Keys Young. Mentoring Australia, a network convened in 2002, wants a national body to co-ordinate mentoring programs and organise training; and to ensure mentoring is a sustainable strategy. Programs today are conscious of the need to screen, train and monitor; some mentors are asked to undertake a 30-hour TAFE course. But it is piecemeal.
Adam Taloni, 27, a hotel manager, was impressed at the rigorous screening he underwent to become a Big Brother, and the care taken to make the right match. He's teamed up with Koray Ant, 11, "a fantastic kid". Taloni said it felt artificial at first but after four months, "a natural friendship has developed. It's refreshing to have a friend who is so much younger and looks at everything in such a different way."
Koray, who lives with his mother, older sister and younger brother, is already coming out of his shell. "The best thing," says Koray, "is having someone who takes you out every weekend, you can have fun with, and talk to. We like the same foods, and the beach, and the movies, and playing games at Galaxy World. He's a friend, and I tell him lots of personal things.
"I hope we just keep getting along for a long time and stay friends."
Adam said, "I see this as a life-long friendship and hope to see him grow up into a good young man."
When mentoring works it can have a significant impact on a young person's life. But Jean Rhodes says mentoring has its limits. It should not be a sop to "feel-good vanity for middle-class adults that detracts attention from more entrenched social problems".
Mentors are needed, she says, but so, too, are government initiatives to prevent problems, and to ensure all young people get a fair share of life's material resources.