I'VE NEVER understood how being smacked on the butt with a heavy paddle helps men to forge a bond.

The idea of being branded with a red-hot wire hanger doesn't do a lot for me, either.

For these and other reasons, I never seriously considered pledging for a fraternity when I started college. I had just completed three years in the Army, where the art of indoctrination by humiliation had been perfected by jackbooted professionals.

I wasn't going to need another dose of that from a bunch of frat boys in beanies.

But frat boys grow up. Keg parties and step shows give way to community-service projects and organized philanthropy.

Today, some of the most important service organizations in the black community are Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, especially graduate chapters organized specifically for community service.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has been tapping that resource. They have had a productive partnership with Alpha Phi Alpha for years. Every Alpha man in the undergraduate chapter at Virginia State is a Big Brother. Omega Psi Phi has provided mentors and money on the national and local level. Philadelphia-based Kappa Alpha Psi has been recruiting mentors for Big Brothers Big Sisters, especially here and in Dallas.

But, what had been a series of piecemeal relationships on the local level is about to become a coast-to-coast call out of committed black men.

Yesterday, Big Brothers Big Sisters announced a new partnership with Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi, organizations that represent 250,000 college-trained black males.

The national mobilization could not have come at a more crucial time for Big Brothers Big Sisters, which mentors kids who need another caring adult in their lives. Their Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter, like every other urban chapter in America, has been flooded with applications by single mothers.

They come in with their boys in tow looking for the one thing they can't give them: the involvement of a man in their lives.

"More than 65 percent of the children we serve are African- American boys," said Uva Coles, vice president for intake services at Big Brothers Big Sisters Southeast Pennsylvania.

"The mothers who come through our doors love and support their boys. But they need a little more.

"They come to us looking for that one thing they can't give their boys: someone who looks like them and thinks like them and behaves the way they do."

The Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter has had to cut off the waiting list rather than hold out false hope. Eighty percent of the kids on the waiting list are boys and only three in 10 volunteers are men.

"There's our imbalance," Coles said. "We can sometimes match a boy with a woman. But the boys have to be under 10 years old.

"As they get older, these boys are looking for a man they can emulate. A woman just can't be that."

Charles Rainey, an administrative law judge who was drawn to Big Brothers Big Sisters by his Alpha chapter, shared an insiders take on the natural link between fraternities and mentoring.

"When I joined my graduate chapter, I pledged with undergraduates," he said.

"I found that a lot of these younger men did not have healthy male role models at home. They were looking to belong.

"That's why this fits so perfectly with fraternity life. We know what it is to be looking for role models."

Rainey's "little" is bigger than he is. But he looks up to him for good reason.

"He's 13 but he's 6-feet tall and the size of a linebacker," Rainey said, "but he's a gentle bear. His name is Unique and he is. He's into trains and roller coasters. We meet about twice a month. But we're always on the phone."

The relationship seems to be working for Unique. His grandmother, who is raising him, and Rainey have formed a partnership around him.

It works for Rainey, too.

"It gives a kid who grew up in North Philly a chance to give something back." *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews. com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith.