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If the future starts with children, the future is starting to look mighty grim. But Matilda M. Cuomo thinks she has the solution.

"The one thing children are asking for from their parents is time," said the wife of Gov. Cuomo and chairwoman of the New York State Mentoring Committee.

She said the committee aims to help children by providing role models their families may not always be able to provide.

In her keynote address at the Western New York Mentoring Conference at Buffalo State College Wednesday, Mrs. Cuomo pointed out that 1,375 children drop out of school every day in the United States and that in New York State alone, 43,000 students dropped out of school last year.

In Buffalo, the dropout rate is 4.7 percent, she said.

"A solution to this problem is focusing on the schools," she said. "When do we lose our kids? First grade, second grade, third grade?"

She said her committee of 40 volunteers did extensive research and found that the problems begin for most students around sixth grade.

This is the time when students enter middle school and must endure the insecurity that comes with dealing with several teachers, rather than just one.

This is also the time of hormonal changes, escalating peer pressure and waning self-confidence, she said.

"They see kids who are making a lot of money system to prevent dropouts
selling drugs. Even at best, in a very good family, they (children) are having trouble today." This is a critical point in children's lives. "Children have to sort out the bad from the good," Mrs. Cuomo said. "One bad friend can do it. These children are exposed to these self-gratifications and quick fixes."

This is where the mentoring program intervenes. By providing role models, the program aims at boosting self-confidence and discouraging students from dropping out. The mentor works with both the child's family and teachers to create a triad to pull together for the child, Mrs. Cuomo said.

"We want to provide direction and hope before people lose faith in the system and tragically run out on us," she said.

Mrs. Cuomo said anyone can get involved as a mentor.

"If you can't do it out of compassion, do it out of self-interest," she implored. "We will not have a work force" if something is not done to stem the tide of dropouts.

Mrs. Cuomo explained that the current program is based on a previous one sponsored by the state Division for Women, which provided "mentors" drawn from women in state government to work with disadvantaged girls. She said the results were profound after only one year. The confidence of the girls had been boosted dramatically.

"They were groomed, looking at you with head up, looking you straight in the eye," she said.

Mrs. Cuomo is confident her program will have similar success. "I know it's going to work," she said, adding later, "It will make more than a substantial dent."

Wednesday's conference was the first step in bringing the statewide mentor program to Western New York and encouraging participation from private businesses.

"The emphasis is on private businesses helping with the schools," said Katherine Schlaerth, a spokesman for National Fuel, one of the sponsors of the conference.

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