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Little Brothers face long wait for mentors

Groups try to attract volunteers especially for young black men
by: Christopher Onstott Volunteer mentor Aubre´ Dickson talks life goals and stereotypes with high school students in the Step Up program at Roosevelt. Dickson also mentors as a volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters Columbia Northwest.

Aubré Dickson knows he's fighting an uphill battle, and that he's not the best choice to fight it.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough Aubré Dicksons out there to battle. Though he works a full-time job as an acquisitions officer for the National Equity Fund and coaches youth football and volunteers on four nonprofit boards and has a wife and three sons of his own, Dickson says he's left with only one answer.

'If I don't do it, who does it?' he asks.

It, in Dickson's case, is weekly mentoring of a black middle-schooler as a Big Brother.

Dickson and his Little Brother have been paired for five years. Trey, Dickson's Little Brother, is a fortunate child. Other boys in Portland have waited years to be matched with a suitable Big Brother. That's because, despite the fact that Portland has the second highest rate of volunteerism among major U.S. cities, not everybody volunteers at the same rate.

About seven of 10 volunteers at Big Brothers/Big Sisters Columbia Northwest are women willing to be Big Sisters. But about seven of 10 kids looking for a match are boys.

Hands On Greater Portland deals with more volunteers than any other local organization, helping supply volunteers to local nonprofits. Last year, 84 percent of the group's volunteers were women.

Andy Nelson, executive director of Hands On Greater Portland, says that may eventually change.

'My sense is that with millenials under 30 you're going to see a lot more men volunteer than in other generations,' Nelson says. 'It isn't because men don't want to help. They don't necessarily see themselves as traditional volunteers in the way women do.'

But Big Brothers/Big Sisters, in its search for male mentors, has another problem, Nelson says. Much of Hands On's success is because the group offers people one-time, often very social activities with young people to mentor, rather than long-term, weekly commitments. The hope, Nelson says, is that a positive experience will lead a volunteer to commit longer term. But most of the time, he admits, it leads to a willingness to perform more one-time volunteer activities.

Nelson says finding volunteers for Big Brothers is among the hardest matches Hands On tries to make. Last year, Hands On directed 25,700 volunteers in the Portland area and most of them were highly educated, busy people.

One-time volunteer activities allow people to maintain their autonomy, Nelson says.

'The biggest barrier to engaging a volunteer,' he says, 'is protecting that person's time and schedule.'

Mentoring a child means giving up some of that autonomy, and in addition, Nelson says, there's another hurdle to overcome: 'Everyone who entertains (mentoring) says I don't want to let this kid down and I'd rather not do it than risk disappointing this child.'

Aubré Dickson feels the same way.

He's also seen studies that show once a troubled youth reaches third or fourth grade without intervention, he may be beyond the reach of those who would help him turn his life around. That Portland boy who waited three years for a Big Brother, by the time one was found, was no longer receptive to the idea of being involved with a mentor.

Long before he met Trey, Dickson understood what it was to be a Big Brother. His own father died when Dickson was 22, leaving him the oldest of four boys. When he was asked to volunteer as a Big Brother five years ago, Dickson said no, then yes. What changed his mind was when he was told he could participate in a less demanding school-based program run by Big Brothers/Big Sisters that would require only that he see Trey once a week at school lunchtime.

Once a week at school led to a deeper relationship between Dickson and Trey, with Trey occasionally joining Dickson's family for basketball in the park or a movie.

Volunteers, if they're going to stay volunteers, need to see that they are having an impact, according to experts. Yet Dickson admits that he's not sure how different Trey's life will be as a result of his mentoring.

Trey has led a life of turmoil, with a mother and father in and out of his life. Foster care hasn't been easy. Fifth grade was especially rough. A mentor can't necessarily combat all that, Dickson says. Some of the benefit of that type of volunteering has to be taken on faith.

'You're not sure if you are making a difference,' Dickson says.

Cluster volunteering

Big Brothers/Big Sisters has plenty of data showing mentors do make a difference for disadvantaged youth. The organization claims that its Little Brothers and Sisters are 45 percent less likely to start using drugs, 27 percent less likely to start drinking, 33 percent less likely to act violently and 52 percent less likely to skip school than counterparts who don't get matched up with mentors.

Mentoring is hard, Dickson says. Seeking more black male mentors, which he does as a member of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters African American advisory board, is also hard.

'You see a lot of one-offs, a group of 30 people who come in and plant some trees for the Audubon Society or pull weeds from a person's yard. A lot of cluster volunteering efforts, a big mad rush of people. But you don't necessarily see a lot of people going and doing something on a more consistent basis,' Dickson said.

Nathan Dietz, associate director of research and evaluation for the nonprofit Corporation for National and Community Service, says the gender gap for volunteers is a national phenomenon that continues even though women work full-time and often, with child raising and household duties, are busier than men.

In fact, Dietz says studies show that people who are busiest also have the highest volunteer rates.

'The married mother who works full time has a higher volunteer rate than any of her counterparts - unmarried mothers, married women, women who aren't mothers, or any men,' Dietz says.

Don't mention 'commitment'

In pursuit of more black male volunteers, Chabre Vickers, director of community relations for Big Brother/Big Sister of the Columbia Willamette, has even been known to bring a DJ and snacks to a Northeast Portland neighborhood barber shop on Saturday mornings.

'Instead of waiting for men to come to us, we'll go where they are,' Vickers says.

On average, girls in need of mentors through Big Brothers/Big Sisters wait a few weeks for a match. The wait for boys averages a few months.

Black boys can wait a year, and longer, especially if they live in Hillsboro or in east Multnomah County, further away from Northeast Portland, where Vickers gets the majority of her black volunteers.

In cities such as Chicago and Atlanta, cities with a larger population of black men to potentially volunteer, Vickers says, the wait isn't nearly as long. In recent years, Big Brothers/Big Sisters has formed Latino and Native American advisory boards along with its African-American board charged with recruiting mentors. They've succeeded. During the past few years, the number of Portland-area black mentors has increased from 50 to more than 200.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Columbia Willamette has become the largest Big Brothers/ Big Sisters on the West Coast, according to Vickers. In just 10 years, the group has gone from five volunteers to more than 3,000.

Nevertheless, its waiting list has grown to 2,400 kids, most of them boys, and it keeps growing.

Vickers says that while recruiting men she shies away from the using the word 'commitment.' Recognizing that many men say they fear not knowing what to do with children they mentor, Big Brothers/Big Sisters has set up a Sports Buddies program with prearranged sports activities, playing and watching, set up for the Bigs and Littles, as they are called.

Nelson of Hands On is convinced there is a large untapped pool of volunteers of all sorts of people.

'Our volunteer rate is less than 40 percent, and it's still second in the nation,' he says. 'It tells us that there are just thousands of people who have yet to find a way to give back. It's not that they don't want to give back. They haven't found a way.'