Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy Executive Director Elaine Swafford talks to the student body outside the school on Tuesday kick off support for mentoring in Hamilton County. The event was sponsored by the United Way, Mayor Andy Berke and 68 nonprofits and schools.

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Mentors Needed: Leaders call for city residents to embrace the area's struggling youth


Participating Nonprofit Groups
100 Black Women of Greater Chattanooga

100 Black Men

Big Brothers Big Sisters

Million Women Mentors

Northside Neighborhood House

On Point

United Way of Greater Chattanooga

Benwood Foundation

Bethlehem Center

Boy Scouts

Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

City of Chattanooga

Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga

East Chattanooga Improvement


Front Porch Alliance

Get Veterans Involved

Girl Scouts

Girls Inc.

GrassRoots MidTown


Independent Youth Services Foundation, Inc

Jim Wert & Associates

La Paz

Mt. Canaan Baptist Church

Stop the Madness

Men of Vision

She Matters

Public Education Foundation


World Restoration Center



Need a Mentor? Want to Mentor?

Go to the Chattanooga and Hamilton County Mentoring Collective web site at or call Elizabeth Tallman at 423-752-0307.

Nearly 400 local children and teens have signed up for mentoring programs and remain on waitlists because local nonprofit groups, businesses, churches and government programs have been unable to recruit adults willing to help.

But a growing, cross-sectional alliance, seeking to improve the economic mobility of local children living in poverty and isolation, hopes to make a dent in that number through a citywide mentoring effort, which many expect to gain steam over the summer months.

Hundreds of caring, stable adult volunteers are needed to pull this off.

The Chattanooga and Hamilton County Mentoring Collective, announced Tuesday to a crowd gathered at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, is spearheaded by Elaine Swafford, the executive director of CGLA; Lesley Scearce, the head of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga; and Lurone Jennings, head of the Department for Family and Youth Development for the City of Chattanooga.

The leadership committee behind the effort includes representatives from Girls Inc., the Hamilton County School System, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, La Paz, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, YCAP, UNUM, EPB, Baylor School, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Chattanooga and several area churches. More than 40 local organizations are listed as partners.

"There are times when there is a crossroad. This is one of those times," said Lurone Jennings, who spoke at CGLA on Tuesday. "We can impact the city as we touch one child at a time.

"If you are concerned about the youth," he said. "Get in the game!"

Right now, 41 percent of births in Hamilton County are to single mothers whose median income is between $20,000 and $24,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that a single mother with just one child would have to earn $41,625 a year to pay basic living costs in the county.

It's a demographic shift that matters because social scientists and early childhood development experts can now say that many of those children will experience poverty, struggle to escape it and potentially remain stuck in an underclass that will swell and cement if Chattanoogans' stagnant wages continue to shrink the middle class and nudge many more toward financial instability.

And many fear the city will pay a high price if the share of children being born into poverty and isolation continues to swell but remains ignored.

A recent study published by Harvard University that used anonymous tax records to map economic mobility across the U.S. showed that almost the entire country — 91 percent of counties — did a better job of creating paths to high earnings for children born at the bottom than Hamilton County.

A child from a poor family in Cannon County, Tenn., would grow up to make 9 percent, or $2,440, more at age 26 than they would if they had grown up in the average American county. In Hamilton County, the opposite is true. A child growing up in a poor family in Hamilton County, would make 9 percent, or $2,470, less at age 26.

Still, the idea for a mentoring collective came long before local statistics became so alarming, Scearce said.

A decade ago, when Scearce, Jennings and Swafford were working at different places and in different roles, they met about their shared belief in the power of mentoring. Each had seen the impact of one-on-one relationships by working with local children and families living in poverty.

Still, at the time, their was little interest, she said.

In 2016, however, there is real momentum, she added.

Last year, the United Way and several other organization convened community members to discuss the needs of public schools, and mentors were the main request, she told the crowd present for the announcement Tuesday.

Schools remain under pressure to elevate students lagging behind academically. Businesses fear a shrinking talent pool. City boosters want to avoid a tarnished reputation, and government leaders face political ramifications if the rash of inner-city shootings and the affordable housing deficit remain a fixture of local life.

More importantly, though, is the fact that more middle- and upper-class residents are beginning to understand they have a role to play in improving the lives of their neighbors. They also understand they have a lot to learn and gain from the experience, as well, Scearce said.

"We are all in," she said. "There are always those who say, 'What are they going to do?' Well, friends, there is no they. There is only us."

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at or 423-757-6601.