Quality Time


Question: What is the secret ingredient in a successful faith-based mentorship program? Answer: Partnership.

Amachi (pronounced ah-MAH-chee), a Philadelphia-based program that matches volunteer mentors with children of prison inmates, has implemented a multilayer partnership that has led to widespread success and replication in cities across the United States. The program brings together local faith communities - with their lofty motivations and human resources - with area nonprofits like the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, foundations, and even the government. The strength of this partnership enables Amachi not only to ask for a commitment from volunteers, but also to encourage and support them throughout their time as mentors.

A basic marker of Amachi’s success is its volunteers’ staying power. Volunteers are expected to spend a minimum of one hour per week with a child for a period of one year. But of the 363 volunteers who are currently active with the program, almost 70 percent of them are well beyond that time commitment. The average monthly time investment is more than nine hours, more than double the original expectation.

Three years after Rev. Paul Karlberg was matched with 12-year-old Dasean, the associate pastor at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Dasean are as connected as ever. Dasean sings in the Proclamation church choir, and this summer he is attending a two-week Christian camp for which Karlberg arranged a scholarship. Karlberg and Dasean go to museums together, attend concerts and ballgames, or just work on Dasean’s homework at his house.

Karlberg said that his faith motivates him personally to be involved with Amachi, and that he oversees 10 other mentors in his congregation who feel the same way. "Our faith motivates us to reach out and express our Christian love for others," he said. "When you get connected with a child and they respond to your initiative, they give you more than you give them."

AMACHI RECRUITS ONLY from houses of worship; though it is open to congregations from any faith, all of the 65 Philadelphia-area churches that participate are Protestant. Organizers say that churches yield a volunteer pool that is motivated by faith and eager to make a difference in children’s lives.

Church recruiting has also helped Amachi - the name is a West African word meaning "who knows but what God has brought us through this child" - garner an unusually high percentage of African-American mentors (82 percent in the program’s first two years).

"Dealing with prisoners and imprisonment is part of all faiths’ mandate," said Rev. W. Wilson Goode, a former Philadelphia mayor who came to lead Amachi in 2000, when it was a fledgling pilot program of Public/Private Ventures, a nonprofit group dedicated to finding and disseminating effective strategies for helping the disadvantaged.

But Amachi understands that volunteers cannot live by faith alone. Another key element in the group’s success is its "performance-based" nature, by which mentors submit a form each month that details the time spent with the child. At the six-month mark, the child is interviewed along with his or her mentor and primary caregiver in order to assess the relationship and ensure that the experience is productive for all parties.

Goode learned early on that structure is a key to making mentors feel supported and accountable to their community. "There’s a congregation supporting a group of folks from the congregation who will mentor these children, and a pastor keeping tabs on the volunteers," Goode said. Amachi staff compiled monthly reports to tell each congregation how it was doing in meeting its commitments.

Matching prospective volunteers with children is one of the most challenging aspects of the program, organizers say. "It’s both an art and a science," said Marlene Olshan, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania (BBBS), of the matching process that they use for the Amachi mentor-child matches.

BBBS recruits volunteers from area churches, but the would-be mentors are not simply matched and sent on their way. A thorough screening process overseen by BBBS social workers includes a criminal background check, a personal interview, and interviews with three character references. After a volunteer has gone through this process, the organization goes into the pool of children who have also been screened and identified as having specific interests such as sports or music.

AMACHI MENTORS ARE trained to focus on maintaining a very specific role in a child’s life, which means that they provide moral support and positive activities, but they are not expected to provide other services such as employment counseling for the non-inmate parent.

"We’re not a Santa Claus kind of figure, but we help out where we can," said Karlberg. If families face serious hardships, BBBS social workers are available to lend help or make referrals.

The multiple layers of support from congregations and the BBBS program ease pressure on the mentors to be all things to their young charges. And that in turn helps temper the idealism of volunteers who are well-intentioned but might become frustrated if they don’t see an instant transformation in the child’s life.

"I don’t see it as a single answer to any of the problems or issues that either side brings to the relationship," said Paul Lichterman, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is writing a book about faith-based civic programs.

Lichterman, whose book, Elusive Togetherness: How Religious Americans Create Civic Ties will be published in 2005, says that in general volunteers who "make that commitment to be mentors over time" have the greatest chance of success. He recounts an experience he had observing a church-sponsored summer camp, when a child came up to him on the one day he would be there and asked, "Are you going to be my mentor?" Lichterman recalls that, regretfully, he had to say no to the child, something that no Amachi mentor would have to do to their charge.

The Amachi model is already being replicated around the country, and the program accepts government funding to supplement its efforts. Grants from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and from Pew Charitable Trusts provide operating funds for the Philadelphia program. In addition, HHS awarded $50 million this year and $10 million last year to Amachi programs nationwide, including ones in New York; Boston; St. Louis; Hartford, Connecticut; Milwaukee; Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta; Dallas; Denver; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Jackson, Mississippi.

The program is finding a home in such disparate cities because it taps into the larger social justice issue of high incarceration rates and the children who are left at home when a parent is jailed. In Philadelphia alone there are 7,600 inmates and an estimated 20,000 children who have a parent in jail. Twice that number of children has a parent who has been in jail at one point in their lives.

To help meet the needs of children for solid mentor relationships - "to help rescue these children," as Goode puts it - Amachi has set the goal to have 30,000 matches established nationwide by the end of this year.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi, a Sojourners contributing writer, has written extensively on religious and spiritual topics and has had commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered.

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