Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' $9.2 million Youth Violence Prevention Initiative needs to invest money in cost-effective youth-mentoring programs. Research shows Big Brother Big Sisters youth-mentoring programs are effective in helping young people stay in school and out of trouble.

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THE two of us grew up as lower-middle-class kids who share decades of experience in corporate America, electoral politics, public policy and nonprofits. But mostly, we share a passion for cost-effective solutions to the very real challenges facing Seattle children and families today.

Despite having great parents in our lives, mentors made all the difference in our becoming the people we are today. We each can point to the coach, the neighbor and the caring adult who sparked and supported our personal and professional success. Together, we are passionate about asking adults to become mentors, and getting our at-risk kids a real chance at a future with the help and support of a mentor. Someone just like you.

Absent, in all but a small way, from the Mayor Greg Nickels’ proposed $9.2 million Youth Violence Prevention Initiative is support for increasing the most efficient and cost-effective strategy for keeping kids out of trouble in the first place — a trained and supported adult mentor.

By all estimates, an astounding 17.6 million young people in America — nearly half the population of young people between 10 and 18 years of age — live in situations that put them at risk for choosing the wrong path in life, not living up to their potential, or much, much worse.

Let’s face it — our at-risk kids are going to find some kind of mentor no matter what. The question is, will it be a responsible adult like you willing to show them productive choices, or the neighborhood drug dealer or gang member? In a city where our high-school graduation rate hovers at 62 percent, we need to invest city dollars wisely now in proven prevention efforts that will have lasting impact. Because serving only 800 youth through the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, at an average cost of $11,500 per youth annually, is neither sustainable or desirable in the long run, let’s change that now.

The mentoring work of Big Brother Big Sisters is the national gold standard when it comes to child safety and adult mentor screening, background checks and training. It’s also an umbrella program that can serve the needs of all our youth regardless of race, income or family circumstances. BBBS has tailored programs to support the specific needs of children of incarcerated parents, bilingual programs for Latino youth and families, and tribal partnerships that impact Native American youth and families, to just name a few.

Independent research shows that, compared withtheir non-mentored peers, kids engaged in a Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentoring Program are 52 percent less likely to skip school, 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs, 33 percent less likely to use violence to solve problems, and a whopping 97 percent less likely to be involved with juvenile-justice authorities.

If a solution is proven 97 percent effective, shouldn’t we all support it?

We’re advocating for adding more mentoring dollars into the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and for other programs that meet rigorous, proven performance standards. In a tough economy, in fact in any economy, it’s not enough to spend taxpayer dollars on programs that might work — we need to go the extra mile and make investments we know will work.

Recently, city leaders in Columbus, Ohio, invested heavily in mentoring through a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Columbus Public Schools. Their goal: Raise the high-school graduation rate in Columbus from 72 to 90 percent by 2012. How to do it? Engage 10,000 mentors in Columbus’ 130 public schools, starting in middle school and through high school. The results? Well, the program is still in process but graduation rates are climbing and problems in the schools are decreasing.

Frankly, we’re both kind of competitive — what else might you expect from a guy who was a Garfield and Husky football standout, and a gal who was a part of the early days of Microsoft? We hate Seattle to be No. 2 (or worse) at anything, but especially high-school graduation rates. If Columbus can make the right — and cost-effective — investment in mentoring, then we can too.

Join us in starting a citywide Seattle mentoring movement — where we will change the goal of reducing violence to the goal of producing empowered, responsible, young men and women through mentoring.

Bruce Harrell is a Seattle City Council member and Tina Podlodowski is CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound.