How to get involvedLowcountry programs that stress or include mentoring kids:Be A Mentor (beamentor.org)Big Brothers Big Sisters (becomeabig.org)Carolina Youth Development Center (cydc.org)Metanoia (pushingforward.org)Mayor’s Office for Youth and Family (charlestoncity.info)Youth Power Initiative (youthpowerinitiative.com)Communities in Schools (cischarleston.org)Youth Empowerment Services (yescouncil.org)Louie’s Kids (louieskids.org)PlayToday!Foundation (playtodayfoundation.org)How mentoring helpsStudents who meet regularly with their mentors are 52 percent less likely than peers to skip a day of school and 37 percent less likely to skip a class.Nearly 18 million young Americans “need or want” mentoring but only three million are in formal, high-quality mentoring relationships.Youth who meet regularly with mentors are 46 percent less likely than peers to start using illegal drugs and 27 percent less likely to start drinking.Among the many dropout risk factors: “no extracurricular participation” and “not living with both natural parents.” — Sources: Big Brothers Big Sisters national study, The National Mentoring Partnership, Clemson’s National Dropout Prevention Center.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on sports and mentoring

BY GENE SAPAKOFF

gsapakoff@postandcourier.com

T.J. Figueroa, one of 10 children, was introduced to his new mentor last week at Riley Park. The 15-year-old from West Ashley was quick with a firm handshake.

Drew Ciccarelli detected an accent.

“You from up north?” asked Ciccarelli, 30, a Charleston business owner and volunteer mentor in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities youth baseball program.

“Yeah,” Figueroa said. “New Jersey. We moved here two years ago because my mom didn’t like all the crime up there. Someone got shot on our baseball field.”

Ciccarelli spotted T.J.’s New York Yankees T-shirt and threw the perfect first pitch.

“You like the Yankees?” Ciccarelli said. “I’m from New Jersey, too. I love the Yankees.”

T.J. smiled.

“The Yankees are my favorite.”

“What about football? You like the Giants?”

“Nah. I like the Cowboys.”

“Oh, no,” Ciccarelli said. “I hate the Cowboys. At least we both hate the Eagles.”

A potentially great relationship is born, another clutch hit for one of two Lowcountry sports mentoring models. The Charleston RBI chapter and the First Tee golf program provide critically needed options for youth in neighborhoods statistically more likely to send kids to jail and rehabilitation facilities than golf courses or on baseball road trips.

“We have to stop feeding kids into these systems,” said C. Jama Adams, Chairman of the African-American Studies Department at John Jay College in New York City. “We need more mentoring but that mission has to be done much earlier.”

According to The National Mentoring Partnership, nearly 18 million kids in the U.S. “need or want” mentoring but only three million are in formal, high-quality mentoring relationships.

Win-win-win

Boys ages 13-18 in the RBI program will break up into “junior” and “senior” teams for summer tournament play. Until then, Ciccarelli will help T.J. focus on his ninth-grade studies at West Ashley High School.

It’s a win-win-win concept for the child, the mentor and the child’s mother.

“I love baseball,” said T.J., who is a pitcher and catcher. “And a mentor will help me stay positive about my school work so I can get into college.”

Ciccarelli said he hopes to teach life lessons from “obstacles” he endured growing up.

“I love it,” said Melissa Gutierrez, T.J.’s mom. “(Ciccarelli) has already arranged to meet with T.J.’s teachers so they can be on the same page. He plans to give T.J. a part-time job. This is a great way to use baseball as motivation.”

That was part of the idea when RBI was founded in South Central Los Angeles in 1989. The Charleston chapter run by director Lerone Johnson is six years old, part of the Youth Power Initiative and sponsored by the RiverDogs, Charleston’s minor league baseball team. The RBI alumni list includes 135 former players who have traveled as far as Jupiter, Fla., for tournaments.

First Tee has worked with 9,300 children in the Charlestonarea since its inception in 2008, executive director Ben Grandy said. Only one of the 10 children in the latest First Tee mentoring program had ever been on a golf course before.

“For us, it was like, ‘This is a tee’ and ‘That is a green,’ ” Grandy said.

But several lessons in, kids ranging in age from 9-13 not only knew how to use a sand wedge, they went to Earth Fare to learn what makes a nutritious sandwich. They attended the PGA Championship on Kiawah Island in August, and have learned to make eye contact when shaking hands.

‘Great life skills’

First Tee and RBI offer tried and true incentives. Keeping or making sports fun is one of the best ways to maintain a child’s interest — and present more mentor opportunities.

The flip-side is quitting, and remaining inactive in athletics.

Similarly, The National Mentoring Partnership points out that “dropping out of school is not a singular event but rather the culmination of a long process of disengagement.”

Identifying individual children or groups most likely to run afoul of the law, or most in need of mentoring, isn’t an exact science. Even for the relatively privileged, good mentoring can fill voids for kids generally dealing with more adult-generated hurdles and temptations than a generation ago. Smart phones and home computers have created opportunities for inappropriate, illegal and dangerous behavior.

“Risk assessment is part of the answer for predicting who will enter the juvenile justice system but it’s not a magic bullet, for sure,” said Craig Schwalbe, an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work.

But sports can offer important carrot-and-stick tools for mentoring. Goals — score, win — are simple, and easily transferred to the teamwork of real life.

At Goose Creek High School, head coach Chuck Reedy insists on collaboration as part of the mentoring blueprint within his defending state championship football program. Player, coach and a parent or guardian meet to confirm goals on and off the field.

“We’re all in this together,” Reedy said. “So far, we’ve had 99.9 percent of the parents on board.”

The First Tee program is partnered with the Charleston Development Academy, a Charleston County School District charter school on Line Street. The 10 participants, nine boys and one girl, are paired with 10 mentors, eight men and two women.

“Our staff has been impressed with how fast the kids progress in golf, even including playing in various First Tee tournaments,” Grandy said. “But, more than that, what we’ve seen is great relationships that teach great life skills.”

At Riley Park recently, Johnson was delighted as he observed the earliest stage of the newest RBI mentoring partnership.

“It’s so great to see something making a difference in a kid’s life,” he said.

Chatting in the stands, Ciccarelli and Figueroa were already outlining a workout program and tutoring schedule.

“And if you’re grades are good enough,” Ciccarelli said, “then maybe we can work on you getting that driver’s license.”

Again, the enthusiastic kid in the New York Yankees T-shirt smiled.

Gene Sapakoff participated in a fellowship study at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York) and The Tow Foundation before writing this story. Reach him on Twitter @sapakoff.