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Mobtown Beat

It's Not Easy Being Green

Federal budget cuts doom Mentoring Program

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 12/5/2001

It's Nov. 28, and Janie Gordon and Tony Jordan are momentarily at a loss for words. They scan the photo albums, filled with snapshots of beaming high school kids at science fairs, scattered amid boxes on the second floor of a historic mansion on York Road. And they sigh because in two days they'll be shutting down the Baltimore EnvironMentors Project, a nonprofit organization that, until this month, put city teens to work with environmental and science professionals on green-tinged projects ranging from testing water in local streams to studying global ecology.

Two weeks earlier, the local program's parent organization, the Washington-based EnvironMentors Project, delivered the grim news that the Baltimore office had to be shut down by the end of November, an unlikely casualty of Sept. 11. Congress, directing additional federal spending toward the anti-terrorism and war efforts, cut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funds that had provided more than half of the mentoring program's $117,000 annual budget. Without the federal money, program director Gordon says, there's no way to continue Baltimore EnvironMentors and keep the 38 high school kids who'd already spent three months this school year planting trees in Herring Run Park and studying sharks at the National Aquarium from feeling "like they've been left high and dry."

Program leaders acknowledge, however, that EnvironMentors isn't just a victim of a sudden shift in U.S. priorities; had its leadership made some different strategic decisions early in its existence, its demise may well have been averted. Less well-funded than older, more established EnvironMentors programs in other cities, the Baltimore program opted to use its limited resources to reach students rather than reaching out to potential private-sector donors, leaving it more dependent on Uncle Sam. Had the program built a stronger funding base of its own, those trees might still be going up in Northeast Baltimore.

"In the long term, we just can't depend on federal funding," EnvironMentors national executive director Whitney Montague says. "You have to get people to buy into [your work], otherwise you're just the next flavor of the month."

Founded in Washington in 1992, EnvironMentors is an extracurricular program with a two-pronged mission: increase interest in the sciences among students at troubled inner-city high schools--especially "C"-average types who often need just a nudge to improve--and increase socialization between groups of people that "might never otherwise interact," Gordon says.

Studies conducted by Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Society for Adolescent Medicine show that teens in mentoring programs are less likely to get involved in violence or in risky behaviors such as drug or alcohol use, and EnvironMentors became textbook evidence. An internal survey taken by project staff this year showed that 98 percent of program participants finished high school and 86 percent were accepted into college.

"This program isn't about just putting kids on a bus [and] taking them on field trips," Montague says. "It's about making them use their brains."

Within two years of its launch, EnvironMentors expanded into other cities, opening in Princeton, N.J., in 1994, nearby Trenton in 1995, Baltimore in 1998, and St. Louis in 1999. At its peak last year, the program served more than 225 students at 15 inner-city schools, many with tough reputations.

In Baltimore, the program took up residency at Northern, Southwestern, Western, and Patterson high schools. Baltimore EnvironMentors matched students with professionals at institutions such as the Maryland Department of the Environment, the University of Maryland School of Nursing, the National Aquarium, and the Baltimore Zoo. Students and mentors met weekly to conduct community-service projects such as planting trees, and scientific experiments like measuring pollution levels in local waterways (Mobtown Beat, Feb. 23, 2000, www. citypaper.com/2000-02-23/mobs.html).

A typical product of the program is Angela Cooper, a Western High junior who was in her third year with EnvironMentors when the program was shut down. Last year she did a project on air quality; this year she was conducting tests on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay (and finding it to be better than expected). In the process, Cooper, whose ambition is to be a pediatrician, says she's gone from being an average science student to someone who doesn't "wait until the last minute to complete my school projects. And if I see somebody throwing trash on the ground, now I'm like, 'Hey, pick that up, now!'"

While EnvironMentors had a positive impact on dozens of Baltimore students, it failed to generate a groundswell of support among local funders. And to some extent, Montague says, that's the program's own fault. EnvironMentors organizers believed the project, with its demonstrated success among students, would sell itself to potential donors, so they focused on recruiting mentors and students rather than actively seeking permanent funders.

"The thing we did wrong in Baltimore is that we were so excited about how effective the program had been elsewhere that it was like, 'Build it and they will come,'" Montague says.

Baltimore EnvironMentors did secure one-time grants from the likes of the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Baltimore-based Elizabeth B. and Arthur E. Roswell Foundation, but Gordon says the two-person office was not in a position to do the kind of determined outreach necessary to sign up long-term underwriters. Day-to-day duties such as meeting with mentors and students, arranging workshops and field trips, and coordinating experiments left time for little else. "It's a labor-intensive program," Gordon says. "You have to give the kids a lot of attention, keep them on track. You're working intensively with 40 kids and 40 mentors."

Linda Stewart, executive director of the nonprofit Baltimore Mentoring Partnership, agrees that programs the size and nature of Baltimore EnvironMentors aren't in much of a position to go trolling for dough. "Most mentoring programs have little or no budget, less than five paid staff, and very little infrastructure to sustain them," she says.

That left Baltimore EnvironMentors and the even younger St. Louis office most vulnerable to the sudden loss of federal funds in October. Needing to quickly pare costs, Montague says, the national office decided to focus on the older, larger programs in Washington and New Jersey, which had established relationships with private donors whose gifts would be crucial in weathering tough financial times.

Despite the local program's short life span, Gordon makes no apologies for its operation. Helping children was what mattered most, she says, and on that score, EnvironMentors succeeded.

Nadia Edwards, a friend of Cooper's and a fellow Western junior, remembers the time last year when EnvironMentors student coordinator Jordan sacrificed box seats to a Lakers/Wizards basketball game to help Edwards prepare a science project. "He stayed here [at school] with me from 3 p.m. to after 10 p.m. to help me out, so he missed the game," she says. But the attention paid off: Last spring, her study on the effect of cayenne pepper on tomato plant growth (it helps) won her an award at the annual EnvironMentors science fair held at Morgan State University.

Edwards says she cried when she learned the program was ending. Like Cooper, she wants to be a pediatrician. And like Cooper, she says she'll feel lost without Baltimore EnvironMentors. "I don't know what I'll do--not just about my projects but about the connection we had," she says. "This program was about relationships. . . . I've always had somebody behind me."

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