The kids and their mentors at Bolder Options can teach us much about return on investment, self-improvement and even how to control the spiraling cost of health care.

Bolder Options mentor Bill Richards, a banker at Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, and Chris Vargas, an eighth-grader from St. Louis Park, just thought they were friends who enjoyed working out together at the YMCA or jogging around the lakes.

"I've lost 10 pounds, and I don't eat as much junk food sitting on the couch playing video games," said Chris, 13. "And this is the best year of school I've ever had. I ran my first 5K race this year. I used to have too much energy and get in a little trouble at school."

Pretty good for a once-sedentary kid without much ambition who is now looking forward to high school and more.

We spend at least $150 billion annually of our bloated health care budget on adult-onset diabetes, high-blood pressure, heart disease and other illness linked to sedentary lifestyles and lousy diets. Fortunately, much of the low-cost solution lies within us. Sometimes, we just need a little positive influence.

Bolder Options, which was recently featured on the PBS program "National Medical Report," shows us the way. It's the story of the one-year relationship between Donovan Fitzgerald, 14, now a successful high school student, and his mentor, Michael McMillan. Over the course of a year, Donovan evolves from a drifting kid into a motivated high school student with increased expectations for himself.

"The evidence is clear," said Peter Benson, who has researched mentoring for years at the Search Institute in Minneapolis. "A good mentoring relationship for one year or more, just quality time together [for a few hours once a week], and things like violence, school dropouts and depression decline and hope, purpose and performance increase."

Helping at-risk kids

Bolder Options, nearly 20 years old and housed in a once-dilapidated, refurbished mansion in south Minneapolis, matches about 150 business and other volunteer mentors with at-risk kids. The relationships are activity-based around common interests in running, biking, skating, walking or other exercises. It includes group sessions, cooking and nutrition classes, and, of course, good meals.

The return on investment on programs such as Bolder Options is stunning.

Executive Director Darrell Thompson, a former University of Minnesota football standout, estimates that the organization's cost to establish and coordinate a one-year mentorship is about $2,400, most of it staff time.

"One year in the juvenile justice system costs taxpayers about $40,000," Thompson said. "We want to focus on positive, healthy activity and reduce truancy, teen pregnancy and crime. The National Center for Juvenile Justice estimates that a youth who gets into the criminal justice system [and eventually becomes a career criminal and prison inmate] will cost taxpayers about $2.5 million over his life.

"We can pay a little now or a lot later."

Several years ago, Twin Cities economist Paul Anton and Judy Temple of the University of Minnesota reported to the Minnesota Legislature that taxpayers can expect future savings of $2.75 to $5 for every dollar invested in effective mentoring and youth-intervention programs such as those offered by Bolder Options, PPL and Kinship chapters around Minnesota.

At-risk kids with a caring adult in their lives are far less likely to drop out of high school, get pregnant or commit crimes, according to the study.

The typical Bolder Options kid is about 13, hails from a single-parent, low-income home and is having some trouble in school. And we're going to need every one of these kids as productive members of the workforce and society, as the economy heals and baby boomers retire.

"I was a lot like Chris, who is kind of like my little brother," said Richards, 32, a Philadelphia native. "I had a hard time in school ... I couldn't sit still. I was getting in trouble, sassing teachers. Then the cross-country coach challenged me to come out for the team. It was the only sport I was ever any good at. When you're part of a program or a team, you're part of something bigger than yourself. There's peer pressure to do well."

Said Chris: "I've got the best mentor."

Details on Bolder Options are at and information on the mentoring clearinghouse Minnesota Mentoring Partnership is at

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •