Ben Kringes, a seventh-grader from Propel East, swung a plastic golf club at a tennis ball on a tee, but he was learning more than just how to grip and swing a club.
"We get to learn how to be responsible and respectful, to take care of yourself and pay attention," said Kringes, 13, of Churchill.
Kringes and his classmates in the Turtle Creek charter school take part in First Tee of Pittsburgh, one of many mentoring programs in the area. Since 1998, the number of students in these programs has grown from 3,828 to 24,112 last year, according to The Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania, a coalition of mentoring programs. The figures do not include youths in mammoth programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boy and Girl Scouts.
Colleen Fedor, executive director of the partnership, attributes the increase to established programs growing and new ones being introduced that offer a wide range of activities -- from golf or fly fishing to those serving a special population, such as the children of parents in prison.
"In the last five years, there's been between 135 and 150 active mentoring programs," Fedor said. "They range from 10 kids in Wilkinsburg to hundreds of kids in programs like Amachi and Big Brothers Big Sisters."
On a sour note, she noted, the ailing economy caused the first decrease in the total number of mentored youth in the region since the figures were tracked in 1998.
First Tee, for example, uses 150 volunteers to help 1,000 students between the ages of 5 and 18 in a six-week program and another 1,000 in a one-day clinic.
"When we're teaching golf to these kids, we're trying to teach life skills, such as honesty, integrity and perseverance," said Kirk Thoma, program director for First Tee.
And golf being golf, the program teaches how to deal with frustration.
Strong Women Strong Girls helps about 350 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade girls at 19 sites throughout Allegheny County.
The 115 mentors from local colleges meet the girls for 90 minutes once a week and discuss strong women, such as Coco Chanel and Cynthia Breazeal, a computer engineer who designs robots. The girls write a journal, visit college campuses and start to imagine their own futures.
Strong Women mentor Kacie Carl, a senior from the University of Pittsburgh, said the program builds self-confidence. …