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Building bridges

New York program uses the power of mentoring to reach fatherless youth

Building bridges

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.- It's the closing ceremony for the Breakfast Club reading program at Bay Shore, New York's Fifth Avenue Elementary School. First and second graders chatter and giggle with the prospect of a long summer ahead of them. They assault the table loaded with bacon, eggs, fresh fruit, and bagels, then take their trays to fold-down tables and eat happily, ready for a full day of school.

The district superintendent is here alongside this Long Island school's principal. So is a photographer, capturing the moment for the school yearbook. This could be any public school ceremony anywhere in the country, but for one significant difference: the presence of volunteers from Grace Baptist Church. For the past year, they've been partnering with the school by offering weekly one-on-one mentoring and tutoring to these students.

Long Island Youth Mentoring (LIYM), a Christian ministry that connects churches with their communities through mentoring programs, has brokered this partnership between a church and a New York public school. LIYM connects churches to schools, churches to foster homes, and Christian role models to at-risk children and teens, giving Christians the tools and training to mentor those in need.

Typically, a child who isn't reading by third grade will not attend college. Reading is no magic wand but it is a door opener-so every Monday parents who realize they need help drop off their children at the church, where they meet with their individual mentors, have breakfast, and work on school-assigned reading and vocabulary. A school bus picks them up from the church and takes them to school, while teachers coordinate with mentors to ensure that the time is used effectively.

LIYM's program features much closer cooperation between a public school and a religious group than is common, but teachers support it because it reinforces what they're teaching. "Same reading we're doing in classes," Fifth Avenue Elementary teacher Donna Gerardi says. "The one-on-one attention solidifies it. They hear it here and they master it there, plus they also get that mentoring with love and attention."

Evelyn Holman, the superintendent of the school district, says many public schools are reluctant to work with churches because of bureaucratic fear of the unknown, but "we don't see it as a risk. It's a misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Part of the job of the public school is to partner with the community. If we're partnering with a firehouse, why wouldn't we talk to churches?"

LIYM relies on volunteer mentors like Gladys Malloy, who has spent two years in the program and is a mentor to Charlize, a 7-year-old student. Every week Malloy and Charlize eat breakfast and go over vocabulary, then read a story together. "I find it rewarding," Malloy says. "She's a real good student and she wants to learn."

LIYM has paired 11 churches with eight schools across Long Island, running before- or after-school reading programs. LIYM has also begun pairing churches with foster homes. (Sixty percent of kids who leave foster homes at age 18 end up homeless.) Brianna Taylor, who runs three Mercy Center foster homes, has seen many girls get pregnant and run out of options with family and friends: "Most of our girls aren't going to go back home. If anyone could use a mentor it would be these girls."

Stephanie Frisz, the program director at one of the Mercy Center homes, is thrilled to have volunteers who can give her and the girls a respite, even if it's only for a few hours a week: "There are a lot of rules and structure here, so having someone who can come and take you out of the house is really important. There's a tension when you have eight girls living together. You can see when they come back from meeting with their mentors that that tension is released."

Many of the girls are new or expectant mothers, so having a role model who can offer parenting advice is crucial if they are to break the cycle that led them to the foster home. Valessa Scott is a quiet girl, with huge eyes that radiate alarm when asked a direct question-and she has an infant daughter, Ariana. She's recently been paired with Doreen D'Agostino, and things are still a little awkward-but then Ariana cries, and an instant connection is made as the two lean over to quiet her down.

Along with the school and foster care ministries, LIYM also sponsors some 300 one-to-one matches, pairing kids with Christian role models. John Cragg, executive director of LIYM since 1985, says, "The fatherless problem is Long Island's biggest problem. Children raised in fatherless homes are three times more likely to drop out of school, and dropouts are three times more likely to go to jail. It creates a multigenerational spiral downward."

Mentoring relationships require patience. Mentors get a few hours a week with their matches, and the task of trying to counter a hostile home environment can appear overwhelming. LIYM rigorously screens volunteers to avoid mentor burn out and only accepts 30 percent of volunteer applications. "You got to see it as a long-term thing," Cragg says. "In our society everything has to be instant. You're here to be faithful, pray up, show up, and not judge the value of time by what you see the kid say or do."

The challenges show why mentors have a powerful role to play in a child's life. Debbie Prezzano, who oversees LIYM's mentoring activities on the island's North Shore, believes that mentors have a unique ability to show a child God's love: "It's like a game of telephone. The telephone game starts out with an original message and by the end of the line who knows what you get. Mentoring cuts out all these middle messages that twist and confuse the kids and gets them right next to the real, original message."

Perry Castronovo can testify to that. He was paired with a mentor, Jim Dean, when he was 9. Castronovo spent his childhood living first with an alcoholic mother and then, after she died, with a grandfather who regularly called him worthless. "When you grow up and are told that you are no good your whole life, you start to believe it," Castronovo says. "When Jim came into my life he took me away from the situation."

Over the course of a 19-year relationship, Dean stayed with him even as Castronovo descended into drug abuse. When all his family and friends melted away, Dean remained. Now 28, a muscular plumber in a baseball cap, Castronovo chokes up when he remembers how he turned to Dean for help: "Jim was waiting for me to tell him." Castronovo has been clean and sober for four years and the two remain close: "Jim never failed me. He never did anything wrong by me."

That's the long view. In the short term, the appeal of being mentored is less complicated. Debbie Pollard has been mentoring 9-year-old My'aysia for two years: My'aysia says, "It's just fun to do stuff. I don't want to sit at home and have nothing to do." Pollard smiles when she hears that. "I'm trying to give her a Christian worldview," Pollard says. Both are seeing that there's always plenty to do.

Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the Northeast regional finalists.

To view a video profile of Long Island Youth Ministry and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.

Long Island Youth Mentoring Factbox


Location: Long Island, N.Y.

Founded: 1981

Mission: One-to-one mentoring for at-risk youths, pairing churches with schools and foster homes to create mentoring relationships

Size: 10 full-time staff, 300 mentoring pairs; programs in eight schools and 23 foster homes

Budget: $700,000 per year

website: www.liyouthmentoring.com

Daniel Olasky

Daniel Olasky