- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2016

Volunteerism is alive but unwell in the District with regard to public and charter school students — more than 30,000 of whom lack mentors and tutors because of a dearth of volunteers.

With student proficiency scores in math and reading hovering at 50 percent, the perennial need for volunteers has become acute, as only about 10,000 of the District’s schoolchildren work with mentors and tutors, says Tom Pollak, director of the D.C. Tutoring and Mentoring Initiative, which advocates for services in the city.

“If you look at the most basic of test scores, you’re looking at at least half of the [District’s] 80,000 students reading and doing math below grade level,” Mr. Pollak says. “It’s a huge gap and it can’t be filled.”

Finding volunteers willing to stick around long enough to truly make a difference in children’s lives has always been difficult, but providing “[less] than a year of mentoring does more harm than good, particularly with youth in foster care, who have been plagued by inconsistencies,” says Daniel Silbert, a mentor recruit at Best Kids, a D.C.-based nonprofit that pairs foster children with adult mentors.

Mr. Silbert’s and Mr. Pollak’s calls for more volunteers come on the heels of a report by the D.C.-area chapter of the United Way that says 72 percent of the nonprofit groups it contacted said they don’t have enough volunteer mentors to fill the needs of the community.

The United Way, with the Deloitte consulting firm, surveyed 43 organizations in the District and its Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs. Of the organizations that participated in the survey, 60 percent are based in the District, the rest in the suburbs.

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“It is clear there is plenty of room for improving the overall state of youth mentoring in the greater Washington, D.C. area,” the report says. “Volunteer mentor recruitment is clearly a primary challenge.”

Nearly 60 percent of the organizations said they have a wait list for youths seeking mentors and that a “lack of people signing up to be mentors” is the most common cause for the wait list.

With regard to foster children, there are more youths that need help than mentors willing to dedicate a year or more of their lives, says Mr. Silbert of Best Kids.

“The reality is our agency is a long way from being able to service every youth in foster care,” he says.

About 1,100 children in the District are making their way through the city’s foster care system. Best Kids has been about to match 115 of those children to mentors and hope to up the number to 140 by the end of the year. But that leaves a lot of kids without a stable, adult mentor in their lives, Mr. Silbert says.

And neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are getting the worst of it.

“It is important to note that it is particularly difficult to find, recruit, and retain mentors in Wards 7 and 8 of the [District], compared to the other locations in the region,” the United Way report says.

Once mentors agree to volunteer, it’s not always easy to retain them for long periods, especially in a city with as transient a population as the District’s. The United Way report says the vast majority of mentors in the region are between 24 and 34 years old and often don’t stay for more than a year.

The report recommended that before accepting new mentors, organizations should perform thorough background checks “to help identify any trends in frequent relocation or career changes, all to help ensure mentoring relationships last longer.”

One respondent said that mentors change jobs or move over the summer and don’t always notify the organization, leaving them without help for some of their children. That causes setbacks for the students who need mentoring.

“There may be a delay in rematching their student, which can be disappointing to the student,” the respondent said. “When a mentor is a no-show for a mentoring session or cancels a lot, the child feels sad.”

And if the mentor stops showing up, the children can see that another adult is letting them down, Mr. Silbert says.

“It can be a very dangerous thing if you tell them you’re going to show up and you don’t,” he says.

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