A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Mentoring programs complain about the lack of adult males. So one took a chance on Marc Plaskie.

In the metro area, Meyerhoffer estimates that there are 12,000 minors who have a mother or father in jail. But because his program is so small, he only accepts kids through direct referrals from certain schools or social-service agencies. And even then, he carefully assesses each child before admitting him into the program.

"Not all of the kids qualify," he says. "There are some kids who have become so part of the system that when I interview them, their investment is slim to none. And at this point, I have enough experience in this field to know when the kid wants to do it and when the kid doesn't." But getting kids is the easy part. "There's never any shortage of children who need help," he continues. "When you don't have the resources, all you do is just turn the faucet a tiny bit so that only a few dribble out. Because if you turned the faucet all the way, you'd get flooded."

The hard part is finding a good, diverse range of mentors.

Marc Plaskie's resumé includes years in jail -- and a 
year as a successful mentor to Juliana and her 
Anthony Camera
Marc Plaskie's resumé includes years in jail -- and a year as a successful mentor to Juliana and her cousin.

Of the thirty kids now in the program, twenty are boys and ten are girls; of the mentors, seven are men and 23 are women. And while the clear majority of children needing mentors in urban areas are ethnic minorities from the working class -- "Forty percent of the families we work with are at or below the poverty line," Meyerhoffer says -- almost all of his volunteers are middle- to upper-class and white.

In 2003, the Urban Institute found that 93 percent of incarcerated parents were men. Fatherless households and a lack of positive male role models have long been identified as major problems in many urban communities, and a contributing element in youth crime and violence. At a recent Denver conference on the educational challenges facing African-American adolescent males, the shortfall in adult male guidance was a recurring theme. A representative of Big Brothers Big Sisters even stood and made an impassioned plea for more men to get involved with their effort to provide mentors to children of prisoners. "We have a hundred kids on the waiting list," she said.

While Meyerhoffer says there's nothing wrong with pairing a seven-year-old black boy with a white woman, he admits that the shortage of adult males can be troubling, especially since his program dictates same-gender mentor matches for children ten years and older. "Part of the frustration is that there are so many boys being referred to this program, and I just don't have enough men to be able to do that," he laments. "A lot of it is from mothers who have sons and whose husbands are in prison. I have six boys on hold for this program right now who desperately need it, and I can't do it."

He's had some success recruiting at the sociology departments of local colleges. Meyerhoffer finds that students, who can get class credit for volunteering, make good mentors because they tend to have more flexible schedules and "they're a lot more socially conscious and understanding of diversity and hardship." He's also gotten mentors through presentations to community organizations, or by sheer dumb luck.

One day Meyerhoffer got a call from a man named Marc Plaskie. He was well-spoken, likable and really wanted to get involved.

But first, he said, there was something Meyerhoffer needed to know.

All psychiatric hospitals seem to look the same. There's always the puke-green walls, the light-gray linoleum, the tired mauve furniture. It's as though any color not emitting the benign hues of recovery might cause patients to dive out the windows in a screaming panic. But psych wards always made Anne feel safe. It was as if the standard horseshoe-shaped enclosure -- with the uniform rooms and uniform windows and anchoring nurse's station -- was two big arms wrapping around her. While other Chicago Reid Medical Center patients secluded themselves or vegetated or became morose, Anne became social. Giddy, even.

Growing up in Colorado Springs, Anne had always struggled with depression. In high school she was quiet and sensitive. She loved books and writing, and she felt words deeply; she was accepted into UCLA and majored in English. She was generally perky and good-natured, but every so often she'd become struck by an overwhelming sadness. Anne struggled. She went to a doctor who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. (This was an incomplete diagnosis, she found out later. Her bouts of depression -- so intense that she often ended up in the hospital -- coincided with her period. It was eventually determined that she suffered from premenstrual dysphoric disorder.)

Anne started going to therapy, and her depression became manageable. She got a job as a nanny with a family in Virginia. She has always loved working with kids. It's such a pure thing, watching them figure out the world. "And with my mental illness, struggling to find that happiness, when you're around kids, it's so simple," she says. "You just feel very important and very loved. For someone who's kind of lonely and depressed, it feels good to have that unconditional love and not have somebody doing all the grown-up judging."

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