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Becoming a mentor can make a difference in a student's life

Only a couple of weeks had passed since the hail of gunfire in Littleton, Colo., when a few dozen people gathered at Northwood Presbyterian Church in Clearwater to discuss the tragedy. No one came expecting an easy answer to these student slaughters. No one left thinking they had heard one.

But Nancy Zambito, a Pinellas schools official who had come to speak as a panelist, made one simple suggestion. As children throughout the Tampa Bay area prepare to return to school for a new year, her suggestion bears repeating.

Be a mentor.

Becoming a mentor won't stop the rain of bullets. But what can we do? Post police at every classroom? What we can do is enter the schools ourselves, sit down with students, listen and help. A mentor is a sounding board and a role model, and, for some children, is invaluable.

Why is a mentor so important? Because some kids don't have someone at home who cares. Because even parents who do care can be chronically busy with jobs, groceries, chores and their other children. Because the child of a single mother may benefit from the company of a grown man, and vice versa, for the child of a single dad. But also because mentoring programs swing open the school door and invite in the community.

Mentoring programs are not for everyone, but they can offer great benefits for children and the adults who mentor them. It's a way to help people without sitting on a committee, attending boring meetings or resigning yourself to taking your turn working the hot dog stand.

The nice thing is that nearly everyone has a school near home or work, and all it takes is an hour a week. Many employers offer flexible scheduling for mentoring, and some even offer to keep employees on the time clock while they're meeting with students.

Warren Weedon, a Coast Guard lieutenant who mentors a "very exceptional" fifth-grade boy in the Hillsborough school system, said conversation was a little stilted at first with his student, who is in the Take Stock in Children scholarship program. But soon, they struck up a great rapport.

With mentoring, he said, "he may not or she may not remember you in the future, but at least in the back of your mind you know that you had a hand in helping them step forward."

Zambito, Pinellas' school district operations director, said she mentored two seventh-grade girls several years ago and both stay in touch. One is a student in college. The other is struggling but, "I know she still talks to at least one sane adult."

Mentoring programs have different wrinkles. They often are recommended for students who are not necessarily problem students, but underperforming ones. E. Camille Koonce, scholarship and mentor coordinator for the Hillsborough Education Foundation, said all students in the Take Stock in Children program _ which requires students to get good grades _ receive mentors. Some schools find mentors for gifted children.

These programs are not silver bullets. They will not turn around every child. Nonetheless, "by providing them with a mentor, we hope to let children actually visualize their dream of becoming a successful person," Koonce said.

"We have found that a caring adult spending as little as 45 minutes with a student for a relatively short time frame can really help that student realize why they're in school, the relevancy, maybe talk out some frustrations," said Susan Rolston, supervisor of community involvement for the Pinellas schools. "It's like the young girl who found out she's a great poet because somebody took an interest in her, and now she's going to graduate this year. And four years ago, she was probably not on the path to graduate."

Call the school nearest you or your local school administrative offices to ask about mentoring programs. Here are a few numbers:

Pinellas County, Department of Community Involvement: (727) 588-6405.

Hillsborough County, Big Brothers/Big Sisters (which runs a school-based mentoring program in addition to its other programs): (813) 287-2210; and the Hillsborough Education Foundation: (813) 231-1962.

In Pasco County, the Take Stock in Children program: (813) 794-2466.

Curtis Krueger covers social issues for the Times.

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