Web links teens, mentors

By Todd Cohen

A nonprofit in Brooklyn, N.Y., hatched by a foundation formed by a Wall Street hedge-fund manager is using the Web to connect low-income teens with mentors and help the youngsters learn about technology.

Now in its fourth year, iMentor is working with 400 students it recruits at schools and community organizations, up from 100 its first year, says Caroline Kim Oh, the group’s executive director.

iMentor, at imentor.org, recruits mentors through volunteer groups and through partnerships it has created with firms such as Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse First Boston, Vivendi Universal, HSBC and MTV Networks.

After screening their backgrounds and training them, iMentor matches mentors with junior highs, high schools and community groups throughout New York City that provide teachers or youth workers iMentor also trains.

The teachers and youth workers, in turn, build iMentor into their classroom curriculum or programs.

Mentors, who initially are asked to introduce themselves by phone to the parents or guardians of the teens they will work with, can participate only if they agree to meet with the youngsters in person four to six times throughout the year, and to communicate with them by email at least once a week.

Once parents or guardians sign forms allowing their youngsters to participate, the mentors use email to introduce themselves to the teens.

The schools and community centers agree to use curriculum projects iMentor has developed to build relationships between the mentors and teens.

The groups also agree to carve out blocs of time for youngsters to attend technology labs to learn basic tech skills. iMentor provides free and secure email accounts for the youngsters.

Mentors, both in person and by email, are available to answer questions students may have as a result of the curriculum projects.

The most common curriculum program, CareerQuest, matches students and mentors based on shared career or personal interests, says Oh.

During a year learning about their mentors’ schooling, careers and interests, for example, students interview their mentors and then write an essay about the mentors’ jobs. Students also build Web sites about their mentors.

Mentors also work with advisory classes, akin to homeroom, in the Humanities Preparatory Academy in Manhattan.

While the youth-service community typically cannot find all the mentors it needs, Oh says, iMentor has had a waiting list of mentors.

iMentor has an annual budget of $500,000 and a full-time staff of six, plus two part-time instructors.

The Blue Ridge Foundation, created in 1993 by John Griffin, president and founder of Wall Street investment firm Blue Ridge Capital, contributes $200,000 to the budget.

The foundation, at brfny.org, works like an incubator, providing seed funding for organizations it supports and housing them in its offices and helping with back-office systems and management support, says Matt Klein, the foundation’s executive director.

In addition to iMentor, to which the foundation has given a total of $500,000, the foundation houses seven other groups in its offices.

Klein says iMentor is rooted in the idea that email can strengthen ties between mentors and young people that must be based on personal relationships.

“Email can provide a great means of communication,” he says. “But initially it has to be coupled with face-to-face contact as well.”

“Holistic” support over several years was critical “so we pay attention to organizational development across multiple areas,” he says, including financial systems, board development and individual programs.

Another key, he says, is “thinking from the beginning about the day when the foundation doesn’t provide financial assistance, an exit strategy.”

The foundation’s support has helped generate funding for iMentor from other groups, he says, including the Tiger Foundation, CSFB Foundation, Pinkerton Foundation, Helena Rubinstein Foundation and Heckscher Foundation for Children, all in New York, and the Donald A. Burns Foundation in Palm Beach, Fla.

“Our model,” he says, “is predicated on the hope that if we seed a new organization and they demonstrate results, other funders will want to fund things that are working.”

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