It's a frigid January evening - an excellent night to hustle home after work. But more than 100 New Yorkers have chosen instead to pack into a crowded midtown conference room.
Late arrivals stand in the back, juggling bulky winter coats and briefcases as they listen. The draw for this intent crowd: They hope to become mentors. Whether they know it or not, they've picked National Mentoring Month as the time to get started.
These are halcyon days for mentoring. Celebrities promote it, 20- somethings find it appealing, and clusters of 9/11-impelled volunteers embrace it. About 2.5 million young people have formal mentors today, compared with only 500,000 in 1990, according to the National Mentoring Partnership (NMP) in Alexandria, Va.
And yet it's possible for the movement to grow too fast, observers say. Some groups focus on a "feel good" approach and quick and easy connections, without giving enough thought to quality control. In worst-case scenarios, children could be harmed instead of helped.
"Mentoring is being marketed now as something that's really easy, with dramatic effects," says Jean Rhodes, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and author of "Stand By Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today's Youth."
But that expectation is just not realistic, she argues. "People don't change very easily. Mentoring is really about small wins that occur over a longer period of time."
It's also about commitment, she insists. In her book, she tells of a boy who had been deserted by his father and was further devastated when a mentor backed out of a relationship that had started off strong. For the boy, it was just one more rejection - one that he was ill-equipped to cope with.
Some benefits can be measured
Certainly no one wants to discourage adults who are drawn to mentoring. The idea of touching a young life in a personal way, of offering a bit of adult wisdom and some emotional support over a shared pizza or a game of catch, is an easy one to warm up to.
In addition, people are right to think of it as something that generally yields solid results.
One of the most important studies of mentoring in recent years was an evaluation of Philadelphia-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of America - one of the oldest and largest mentoring organizations in the United States. An independent firm did research over an 18- month period in 1992-93 and found that students paired with mentors missed less school than children on the group's waiting list, had lower levels of substance abuse, showed less physical aggression, had better relations with parents and peers, and achieved higher grades.
The good news from the study may have helped to fuel a recruitment frenzy.
There are at least 17.6 million at-risk children in the US who would benefit from a mentoring relationship, the NMP estimates. That's a figure that has some groups working overtime to make the experience as convenient as possible for the volunteer.
For instance, corporate and faith-based programs often allow groups of employees or church members to mentor together at a site and a time that works best for them. Other programs team up two mentors who share one mentee. And online mentoring has surged in popularity.
These approaches can be helpful because more adults and kids find connections, but in some cases, convenience might encroach on quality, says David DuBois, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois in Chicago who has researched the effects of mentoring.
The importance of 'best practices'
Groups that promote mentorship should rely on a core set of "best practices," he says. These include careful screening of mentors, initial and ongoing training, close monitoring of the relationships, and a degree of parental involvement when possible.
"Mentoring programs are …