Twelve-year-old Miles Eliason felt ambivalent at first about spending time with an adult mentor. His parents had divorced and there were some tough times at school when his mother signed him up for Kids 'n Kinship.

Then he saw mentor Scott Berres' hobby. "He created an arcade system out of a computer. I was like, 'This dude was cool.' "

The two hung out a few hours each week, playing video games, shooting baskets and working on the occasional school project. It seemed like ordinary kid stuff, but it helped Eliason map out his future.

"It had a huge impact. Scott is a programmer. I ended up going to school for graphics and web," said Eliason, now 25 and in computer sales. "If it wasn't for him introducing me to all that different technology, I probably wouldn't have gone to school for what I did, if at all."

Eliason is one of more than 3,000 children paired with mentors through a nonprofit started by a Burnsville couple in 1972 and now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

They're hosting a gala and silent auction on Saturday and reflecting on the program's influence on children and families.

The program matches children age 5 to 16 with mentoring individuals, couples and families.

Children often come from single-parent homes or families adapting to life after divorce. In recent years, the program has seen a rise in the number of grandparent-led households seeking mentors for their grandchildren.

More than 75 percent of children in the program have endured tough times including economic hardship, a disabled family member, and experiencing or witnessing abuse or neglect. Kids 'n Kinship helps these children establish a healthy relationship with an adult role model.

Teachers, social workers and church leaders often refer families to program. Mentors are asked to share their time and are discouraged from spending large amounts of money on outings.

"We try to impress on our volunteers that we don't want it to be about fancy activities," Kids 'n Kinship executive director Jan Belmore said. "We want it to be about time together."

Popular activities include cooking, playing board games or sports, and watching a movie. Mentors sometimes don't even realize that these activities can be magical firsts for kids. She recalls one child describing tasting his first s'more and sitting around a campfire with his mentor family.

The average mentor-mentee relationship officially lasts three years. But many endure for decades. "The word kinship technically means extended family, and that's really what it becomes in some instances," Belmore said.

About 75 children are now matched with mentors, with about 45 on a waiting list. The program serves Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, Farmington, Lakeville and Rosemount.

The program holds four events for mentors and children each year, but each pairing develops their own weekly schedule of activities. Fueled by a shared love of flight, one pair built a miniature rocket and ventured out to the airport to watch jets land and take off, said Rita Younger, Kids 'n Kinship program coordinator. Another mentor attends his mentee child's concerts and school events so the boy will see a friendly face in the audience.

Parents and guardians are often the mentor's biggest cheerleader.

"We have some of the best parents and guardians," Younger said. "They knew the child had this void in their life, and they took the step to get them in a mentoring program."

Time spent with mentors makes an immediate difference. According to a program survey, 97 percent of teens and children reported an absence or reduction in serious incidents or behavior while matched with a mentor.

The back story

Carol and Dick Frick started the Dakota County program after moving from Minneapolis to Burnsville. A neighbor serving on a community action council asked the Fricks to address the needs of children from single-parent families.

"I found there was an extreme need," Carol Frick said. "At the time, it surprised me there were a very large amount of single-parent homes in our area."

Each summer, the Fricks hosted a party for all the mentors and children at their home. They also served as mentors to three boys.

The Fricks' first mentee, Scott Jahnke, still meets Carol Frick for breakfast several times a year. He joined the program at age 10. He's now 48 and a press operator in Apple Valley. He said the Fricks introduced him to some of his lifelong passions, including fishing and snowmobiling.

"It was a completely life- changing experience," Jahnke said "They are still a very big part of my life as far as the friendship and, literally, the family bond we developed."

Shannon Prather is a Shoreview-based freelance writer.