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Mentors learn from peers

Staff members from mentoring programs across Southern Oregon join together to support a fragile hoop, symbolizing a child in need, during a conference Friday in Medford. Click the photo to see a larger (34k) version. / Bob Pennell — — — The desire to do a better job in their role brings providers from across state to forum

Of more than 200 programs in Oregon that pair caring, capable older people with kids who need them, nearly a quarter are in the south end of the state.

That qualifies the region as a focal point for efforts to make sure more children have mentors in their lives, state and national experts said Friday.

We think of Southern Oregon as a hotbed of mentoring activity, said Tom Nelson, executive director of the Oregon Mentoring Initiative, speaking to about 150 social service workers, teachers and health professionals gathered at Medford's Smullin Center.

Programs that range from SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) and HATS (Help a Teen Succeed) to Lunch Buddies reach out to hundreds of local youngsters each year, hoping to increase school success, build self-esteem and offer alternatives to destructive activities.

Statewide, about 15,000 kids are involved with mentors, Nelson said.

It's not enough, however, simply to want to provide a caring presence in young lives, said Susan Weinberger, a Connecticut expert on the subject known nationally as Dr. Mentor.

Creating quality programs requires solid plans for recruiting mentors, thorough criminal background checks and reference inquiries to ensure safety, and ongoing training for mentors and the young people they serve, she said.

You do it right, or you don't do it at all, said Weinberger, who developed the first one-on-one school-based mentor program in the country.

Enhancing quality was the goal of Friday's daylong seminar for mentor program providers from eight counties. Participants attended sessions that focused on recruiting, maintaining and sustaining mentor relationships.

People who do this work are hungry for opportunities to meet others who do this, Nelson said. These people go away with tools and new knowledge.

Such training is invaluable, said Clem O'Hara, director of the HATS program run by Rogue Valley Campus Life. Operated since 1996, the program last year connected 65 community mentors with about 70 young people referred by schools and other agencies.

Mentors are doing a service to students, to God, to their communities, said O'Hara, whose program is one of several Jackson County efforts.

Others include the Special Friends program in Prospect and Medford programs run by the Washington Athletic Association and Kids Unlimited of Southern Oregon.

Research from the Oregon Mentoring Institute shows that kids enrolled in mentoring programs are 46 percent less likely than others to use illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to use alcohol, 53 percent less likely to skip school and 33 percent less likely to engage in violence.

And it's not just troubled young people who can benefit, said Weinberger.

Suburban kids are almost as likely as those in violent neighborhoods to experience 'parental absence,''' she said. ... The common denominator is adults do not pay attention to them.

Friday's conference was organized by Sarah Heath of the Jackson County Commission on Children and Families. For more information about programs or about how to become a mentor, call 774-7804.

Reach reporter JoNel Aleccia at 776-4465, or e-mail