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HBO Programs Partnerships for Inner-city Teens

June 1, 2000
There’smore to HBO than Sex and the City and The Sopranos. A division of Time Warner’s CableNetworks Group, the TV network also creates hope for teens. Through its mentoring programsin New York City and Los Angeles, HBO employees have volunteered as biweekly mentors forurban youth between the ages of 9 and 20.

“Theprogram makes our community a better place,” says Alisa Katz, a mentor andadministrator in human resources at HBO’s offices in Los Angeles. “It createscamaraderie among those employees who participate. And who knows? These kids may grow upto become our future employees.”

Whilemany employee volunteer programs require time off the job, HBO’s program takes placeon the job. It’s convenient for both the young people and the mentors who meet at HBO’sL.A. offices every other week for two hours.

Inspiredby HBO’s New York mentoring program, Katz wanted to replicate the success in LosAngeles. She remembered A Place Called Home, a program for  inner-city youth in South Central Los Angeles, founded by her friend andformer co-worker, Debrah Constance in 1993.  Toofew resources existed in that community to serve as an alternative to urban violence --something that still is a major concern.

Sinceits founding, A Place Called Home has grown to serve more than 3,000 young people. Amongits services are an accredited Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school,programs in the arts, recreation, health, gang prevention/intervention, jobreadiness/placement, trips, computers, internships, and more. It’s been a perfectmatch: HBO provides the mentors as working role models. A Place Called Home recruits theyouths -- many of whom are identified through the LAUSD’s alternative education andwork centers and A Place Called Home’s other activities.

Dogood, do right

Startingup a corporate mentoring program requires more than a soft heart. It also requires gettinga corporate commitment and designing the program to benefit the employer and communitypartner. Katz first pitched the idea to the HR manager in Los Angeles. She also suggestedthe idea to another colleague who served as liaison with Communities in Schools, the localorganization that creates mentoring programs throughout Los Angeles city schools.

HBO’scorporate leaders immediately supported the partnership. It gave their employees a way togive back to the community and develop corporate pride. HR also believed that HBO had thepeople, time and financial resources to accommodate the needs of A Place Called Home.

“Thegoals of our mentoring program is to provide our mentees with a stronger sense of hope fortheir future,” Katz said. “The mentors help to make jobs and careers a moreaccessible concept for them.”

HRtook responsibility for the mentor budget. HBO pays for the transportation, the food,special activities -- bowling, softball games, picnics, holiday gifts, specialacknowledgement gifts -- and other necessary expenses.

HBO’sHR staff marketed the program aggressively, with posters, e-mail, a video on A PlaceCalled Home and executives’ endorsements of the program. In the first year, HBOenlisted 24 mentors. “The second year we did all the same things,” says Katz.“But we had the added advantage of word of mouth.” And 34 mentors.

Becausethe program seeks to encourage long-term relationships, some mentor pairs are expected tobe together for several years, says Juliana Wells, mentor coordinator at A Place CalledHome. “We like to start some kids when they’re 15. That way they experience athree- to four-year relationship,” she says.

Tobe paired with mentors, the young people must demonstrate motivation, commitment, andresponsibility to succeed in the program. Mentors must demonstrate the same qualities.

Mentorsimpart life skills

WhenErnesto Alonzo Romero, 18, first arrived at A Place Called Home in 1997, he was sufferingfrom the loss of a family member. But he doesn’t believe that he’s faced anymore difficulties than the average teen. “It was more like nothing was catching myattention,” says Romero. “I didn’t have any kind of inspiration.”

Wells,however, asked Romero if he’d be interested in joining the mentoring program. “Sheenticed me by saying they would have free food,” he says.

Romerowas paired with Lisa Robinson, who was then an assistant in HBO’s sales division. Heassumed that his mentor would be a middle-class do-gooder whose parents paid for anythingshe ever wanted, a person who wanted to do her “good deed for the day.” Thatpresumption wore off after they started talking.

“Wereally didn’t do anything for the first few meetings,” says Romero. “Wejust walked in the [local shopping] mall and talked about ourselves to each other.”

Thetwo hit it off so well that they met more often than the program required. Romero says  the mentoring relationship, gave him importantlife tools. He learned about the working world -- particularly the entertainment industry.And Robinson was able to answer his specific questions about career expectations in otherfields. Most important, they developed a friendship built on trust and respect.

“I’mmore open-minded to [new] people and experiences,” says Romero. “Sometimespeople stereotype young adults from South Central L.A. They brand us as drug-abusers, gangmembers and criminals.” Most of his friends, he says proudly, are graduating on time.

HRdrives corporate goodwill nationwide

HBO’smentoring partnership is only one of its volunteer programs. The New York headquarters haspartnered with community organizations for years. “Time to Read,” a Time Warnerprogram pairs seventh graders with volunteer tutors to read its publications, such as Timeand Sports Illustrated for Kids. HBO’s New York office also has an extensivementoring program with high school students from the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.

AsHR establishes or expands corporate volunteer programs, partnerships with  local schools and youth organizations are worth alook.  By investing in tomorrow’sworkforce, companies will upgrade the pool of the new-generation job candidates. Maybethey’ll even have dibs on hiring them someday. Says Romero, “Overall, we’regood kids just trying to get by.” 

Workforce,July 2000, Vol. 79, No. 7, pp. 66-67 -- Subscribe now!