It's been an amazing six and a half years, watching this kid grow up. Zeferino was just nine when our local Big Brothers chapter made him my little brother — and made a mentor out of me.

When we look back now, we still talk about the times that seemed like milestones along the road from kite-flying to car-shopping.

Oh, all right. I'm the only one who does the looking back. I launch into another “Remember the time when you …” — and he does one of two things. Laughs and changes the subject or asks when I'm going to “let it go.”

With 16 in his sights, “Z-man” is inclined to face just one direction: forward. He can get his driver's license in a few months. He just started dating his first girlfriend. And high-school graduation is only two school years away. With the world opening up all kinds of possibilities before him he's not the least bit interested in what happened five minutes ago, let alone five years back.

But one day soon, I'm sure, he'll stop and reflect not only on the memories we've shared, the bond we've forged, but also on the major turning points of his entire young life. He'll think about how he lost both his parents to a car crash when he was just 5 years old. How his grandmother adopted him, loved him as her own, became “Ma” to him. How he came to start spending Sunday afternoons with a guy named Dave who, thanks to Ma, knocked on the front door and walked into his life one sunny day. He'll look back and, I hope, he'll see fit to become a mentor to a fatherless boy himself. He'd be good at it.

When that day comes, I hope he finds that Big Brothers-Big Sisters of America has been restored to greatness.

Yes, I said restored.

In case you missed the news, here it is. In February, the national office of Big Brothers-Big Sisters notified its nearly 500 chapters that, beginning July 1, they could not exclude homosexual volunteers as potential mentors to children.

What kind of madness is this? you ask. Haven't they seen the headlines coming out of Boston, Palm Beach and Dallas this year? Haven't they heard what happens when boys and young men are sent off with homosexual men?

Of course they've heard. But money talks louder than good sense. You see, this decision isn't about improving the organization's ability to do what's best for kids in need. It's about economics.

Big Brothers-Big Sisters primarily serves the poor. For funding, it relies on United Way donations, foundation grants and corporate sponsorships, along with grassroots fund-raising efforts like raffles and walkathons. The United Way, with its expansive donor base, is weak as a dry reed against the cultural currents of the day. And we know all too well from the headlines that many of today's corporate and foundation leaders have no compelling reason to stand up for what the culture considers “traditional ideals” of virtue. Especially at a time when companies are scrambling (or being sued) to do things like extend health insurance to their employees' live-in lovers, including the same-sex variety.

That Big Brothers-Big Sisters is being swept along on this rising tide of moral compromise is especially troubling to me because I know some of the organization's administrators and social workers at the local level. The folks who staff my Big Brothers chapter are some of the finest and most dedicated human-services workers I know. They put in long hours screening potential mentors, corresponding with hopeful mothers and monitoring existing matches. They're concerned with just one thing: helping fatherless boys find a rewarding and responsible place in the world.

Local-chapter people can't say so out loud, but you can bet that few, if any, have a special place in their hearts for politically correct bylaws mandated by “National” to appease potentially vociferous donor segments.

Solid Citizens

And then there are the communities the local chapters help. A 1992 study of youth-mentoring programs confirmed what anyone knows if they have a little bit of what my grandfather would have called “horse sense”: Young people who have a caring grown-up in their lives are a lot less likely to get into serious trouble. Drugs, alcohol, crime, dropping out of school and having babies out of wedlock — the social pathologies soar among teen-agers who have no adult mentors or role models to relate to. And Lord knows that, today, too many young people, especially the ones in high-risk, low-income homes, are growing up with not a responsible adult in sight.

The difference a mentor makes is especially conspicuous among young males. Because Big Brothers is there, lots of boys tempted to commit serious crimes are instead learning how to do the right thing. As a result, the mean streets of our cities are at least a little less mean. What's not to love about an initiative making a contribution like that?

Now, suddenly, as of this summer, there's a big “and yet” hanging over the entire organization: They do a lot of good for a lot of people, and yet …

Unless the powers that be at Big Brothers-Big Sisters see what a terrible mistake they're making, one sure to have tragic consequences at some point in the future, I'll have no choice but to walk away from Big Brothers once Zef turns 18 (at which time we'll begin a new phase of our relationship: friends for life, but no longer monitored by a social worker).

In the meantime, I'm going to write the group's national office in Philadelphia to voice my deep disappointment over this sad development. And, yes, I'll urge them to learn from the mistakes we, the Catholic Church, made when we inadvertently sent boys and young men off with homosexuals. I'll ask: Why would anyone — no, why would you of all people — do so deliberately? Why not focus instead on doing the right thing and trusting the funds to follow, albeit from different sources than you've courted in the past? (To join your voice with mine, go to http://www.bbbsa.org and click on the “Contact Us” link.)

I don't relish taking this step. I have as much to thank my local chapter's administrators and social workers for as Zef does. Watching him develop — in ways he might not otherwise have grown without my being there, such as in regular attendance at Sunday Mass — has enriched my life immeasurably, in more ways than I could ever count or pay back. See my Big Brothers testimony under the “Stories & News” link at bbbsa.org and I think you'll see what I mean.

No Room for Compromise

I think so highly of my local chap-ter's staff that, when I heard the news, my initial response was to mull the idea of “working within the system” to right things. I'm a member of my chapter's advisory board. Couldn't I stay and push for change from within? I asked myself.

After all, I know firsthand how rigorously mentors are screened, and that no match is made without the consent of the mother or legal guardian.

But it eventually sank in that, once my present match is officially complete, nothing less than a zero-sum stand will do. Why? Because this is one situation in which a “non-discrimination” clause protecting homosexuals is so clearly wrong at such a fundamental level. Big Brothers-Big Sisters is one organization that should make no apologies for screening out adults who may become sexually attracted to their own charges. Indeed, such a lockout seems essential to the very mission of the organization. Isn't this obvious?

If you don't think so, consider this. How hard is it to picture, for example, a lesbian couple who want “our son” to have an adult male in his life — and have no compunction about sending the boy off, week after week, with a homosexual man? Now picture a Big Brothers administrator having no choice but to say to the boy: “Well, if it's okay with your moms, it's okay with us.”

It will pain me to part company with Big Brothers, if this policy is still standing two and a half years from now, because I know that, except for this one devastating new wrinkle, Big Brothers-Big Sisters of America remains — “on the street,” if no longer on paper — a worthy and good secular charity.

Can it be saved by a letter-writing and mentor-resignation campaign? For the sake of all of us, I can't tell you how much I hope so.

David Pearson edits the Register's opinion, travel, arts and books sections.