Mentoring American-style is set to hit Britain later this year with the launch of the first national scheme. The organisers of Big Brothers and Sisters UK promise to make the idea as "cool as a pair of trainers".
The American equivalent was founded to help orphans and children of the destitute in New York 90 years ago. It has presidential approval and is spearheaded by Hillary Clinton. The project organisers speak of "missions", "hope" and "achieving full potential", and have a reputation for aggressive marketing campaigns.
The scheme's volunteers, usually in their mid-twenties, are called "bigs"; their charges - usually eight to 15-year-olds - are known as "littles". The idea has featured in several TV shows in the United States from Murder One to The Simpsons. In The Simpsons, Bart, fed up with dad Homer, pretends to be fatherless in order to get himself a "Bro". In a forthcoming episode of hospital drama ER, hearthrob doctor George Clooney becomes a "big" by taking a "little" under his wing.
The first batch of British volunteers-in-waiting are Oprah Winfrey fans. UK spokesperson David Hall says: "We haven't advertised and we've already had 3,000 calls. A lot were from people who saw an item about the project on Oprah and rang the TV station in Philadelphia to get our number."
The UK scheme, part-funded by the Department of Health and the National Lottery, will initially only be available to children of single parents. It is hoped to have a full-time case worker matching mentors and children in every local authority in England and Wales by 1999.
The US scheme's own research says mentored "littles" were 46 per cent less likely to take drugs, 52 per cent less likely to truant, a third less likely to hit someone, and had better peer relationships than non-mentored children.
However, Mr Hall says Big Brothers and Sisters UK will not accept referrals from teachers, social workers or probation officers. The initial call to the scheme must come from a parent.
He says: "Single mums have the confidence to spend money on their kids they can ill-afford, so why shouldn't they have the confidence to call us. We see our competitors as youth companies like Nike or Reebok. We want kids to say 'Hey mum, instead of new trainers, get me a mentor'."
The project plans to melt the sang-froid of British children with a range of marketing goodies: a TV commerical, a pop song written by 70s hippie singer Roy Wood, a short film featuring a "very famous young Scottish film star" and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "This is kool, not naff".