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Derek Jennings 

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In a minimum-competency obsessed world, volunteering can be a way to maximize the potential of future leaders. It's that time of year again when it seems that all my interests converge and, even by my own standards, things get pretty busy. Being a husband and father of four with a demanding, 24/7 job is already a balancing act. On top of that, I write this column, coach youth sports, and have just resumed tutoring at my church, and mentoring through my job, among other things. People that know just some of the stuff that I'm involved in often ask me how I find time to do it? When do I sleep?

I don't see anything particularly special about my various involvements -- there are a whole lot of folks who've done a whole lot more for a whole lot longer. I just happen to have this column, a forum in which I can write about my interests and experiences. As regards community service, I'm not so much interested in telling people what I'm doing, as I am in telling them why I'm doing it.

I suppose "If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem" could be seen as the reductionist cousin to G Dubya's (in)famous "if you're not with us, you're with the terrorists" quip--minus the jingoism. What I read in that old adage, though, through the eyes of a self-styled social critic, is an implied, collective responsibility for constructive action. I clearly hear in that a communal imperative to fix what we perceive as broke. There's a lot of stuff broken in the United States and the rest of the world, but to me, the welfare of our children is of paramount priority. So I'm especially down for any solutions to the myriad problems that they face.

I guess it would be easy to just "tsk-tsk" when I hear depressing stats about dropout rates, or proclaim yet another generation as "lost" in response to the latest news accounts of gun violence and school suspensions. As blessed as I feel for all the opportunities I've had in life, and as grateful as I am to all the family, teachers, coaches and others who've helped make me who I am, I choose to do what I can, when and where I can to make a difference in the lives of kids. And guess what? That's the truly easy part. At the risk of sounding like Sally Struthers ("just a couple of pennies a day?"), I have to say that the work ain't hard, really--and who knows what return a child will reap on your sincerely given one or two hour a week investment?

Last year, I answered the call at my church, which provides free math and reading tutors for students from the local public elementary school. I worked with a couple of third graders, for an hour and a half, one night a week, throughout the entire school year, helping them acquire skills that my own kids had mastered in kindergarten and first grade. While that wasn't a lot of time, they were getting individual attention from me that they'd have been hard-pressed to get from school, as one of 20-something students, and significantly behind grade level, to boot.

At work, I participated in the second year of IBM's MentorPlace program (having been part of the pilot a year prior, when it was called e-Mentoring). In this program, more than 600 IBMers were paired with middle school students in Durham and Wake counties. The mentors met with students for at least two face-to-face meetings (kickoff and closing), and then corresponded with the children via e-mail over a secure, monitored Web site.

Since I almost always work through lunch, and am prone to having some meeting or emergency pop up at the last minute, the e-mail component of the project was attractive to me, allowing me to interact with the kids, even if it meant that I was sending out a note at 2 a.m. that they'd get the following day.

Like version 1.0 of anything, the initial incarnation of e-Mentoring/MentorPlace had some bugs that needed to be worked out. The kid I had during my first year wasn't particularly motivated to have a mentor. His dad was an engineer and mom was a biologist--not quite the demographic I'd envisioned myself signing up to reach. My lengthy (hey, I can't help it) messages and inquiries ("How's school? What are you working on? Do you need help in any subjects?")--if they got any response-- usually elicited a brief, two-line joke, followed by three lines of "hahahahahahahahahahaha," which presumably filled up the hour he had during computer lab. Meanwhile, coworkers told me about all kinds of wonderful discussions they'd had with their mentees, including providing them with career and school advice. Life changing stuff. Sigh.

In MentorPlace's second year, however, several improvements were made, providing a more consistently valuable experience. The "opt-in" aspect of the program was emphasized, reducing the number of reluctant mentees. The Web site where we interacted was greatly enhanced to include numerous discussion topic templates to drive dialogue between the mentor and mentee, minimizing awkward gaps, and the teachers further integrated the project into their lesson plans.

I also participated in an off-shoot of MentorPlace last year, called iMentorU, in which we were paired with college students at North Carolina Central University. The thrust of this program was to provide a mix of "hard" and "soft" skills to the students, increasing their technical preparedness, and equipping them for survival in a corporate/professional environment. The students worked on group, for-credit technical projects under joint IBM/NCCU direction, and also met with mentors and corresponded via e-mail. The program's success has led to its expansion this year as a method of outreach to other schools, particularly historically black colleges and universities.

Beyond the one-on-one nature of tutoring and mentoring, coaching youth football and basketball at the local recreation center gives me a chance, hopefully, to positively impact the lives of several kids at once. As a coach, I'm big on teaching, encouraging, and making each child aware of their unique strengths and accomplishments to motivate them to excel. As the school year goes on, I'll clear some space on my calendar so that I can volunteer in my own children's classes, like my wife does. In a minimum-competency obsessed society, what we're concerned about is maximizing potential.

Volunteerism is by no means a one-way street. I get so much in return for the time that I spend. I can't put a price tag on seeing a little boy or girl that I'm tutoring beaming after I give 'em a high-five and congratulate them for getting an answer right or mastering a concept. There's a unique glow that lights up the face of a child who's scared to read aloud in class, who is riddled with self-doubt and probably ridiculed, once they come to the realization that they are smart, that there are things that they know. Or watching kids gain confidence in their abilities on the court or field, recognizing, via a child's game, the universal rewards of hard work and good attitudes.

Those are the things that I think about when I hear someone go off on a rant about "these bad-assed kids today." I got no time for that. I'd rather work toward the solution. EndBlock

Derek's views are his own and are not intended to represent those of the IBM Corporation. To learn more about MentorPlace, visit www.mentorplace.org.

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