Theodore Jones wept as he watched four black youths, each a potential casualty of the drugs and violence in their Alexandria neighborhoods, walk to the stage during a recent banquet to receive academic achievement awards.

All this year he has been their mentor and friend, hoping his message of responsibility, education and self-pride would overshadow the negative images they sometimes encounter in their communities. "A lot of these kids are on the threshold," Jones said.

In 1987, Jones, 33, helped form a male support group known as the Untouchables, which honored the youths for their efforts. He is part of an embryonic volunteer movement involving hundreds of black men in the Washington area who have created organizations to provide role models for young black males.

For these men, watching and reading news reports has become a daily bout with frustration. The scenes too often are the same, they say: young black men lying dead in the streets, gunned down by their peers.

"We've got to do something," said Jones, a counselor who volunteers about 14 hours a week with the Untouchables. "When Jay Bias {the younger brother of the late University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias} was shot and killed, it really hurt me. I've got two sons, Cornell {20 months} and Theo {5}. What's going to happen to them?"

Drugs and violence have provided a "wake-up call" for black male mentor groups, said Jeffery M. Johnson, of Silver Spring, author of the book "The Endangered Black Male, the New Bald Eagle."

"Since the civil rights movement, we have had a lull in activism of 10 to 15 years," he said. "But as quietly as it is being kept, the men are coming together . . . to reclaim our community."

During the last few years, Johnson said, he has helped organize more than 35 mentor and fellowship groups in the Washington area. But because the groups operate in places such as family basements or church halls, it is difficult to determine their exact number or the number of youths involved. Their efforts, some say, reflect a renewed interest by black professionals in giving back to their neighborhoods.

Among the known programs, the mentors have diverse economic, educational and social backgrounds. The men talk to parents, teachers and, in some cases, corrections officials, seeking their help with the youths' study habits, behavior and other issues. Often, the men tutor the youths and, using their own money, take them to concerts, plays, churches, sporting events and museums and on field trips to meet prominent black men such as Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In some cases, mentors become surrogate fathers.

"If we hope to save a generation, then we are going to have to step up and do the job," said Ernest White, a 42-year-old talk show host with radio station WDCU, who organized a mentor program through his show. "We are the only hope that some of these youngsters have."

White recalled taking one of his Washington youths home one evening when he noticed a drug deal gone awry as a crowd of about 30 young men looked on. "One guy drew a gun," White said. "And I looked behind me and it looked like everyone in the crowd had a gun." After he returned to his house, White called the grandmother of his student to ask if there was any shooting. "She said, 'No more than usual,' " White remembers.

Some mentors say it is too early to know how successful their efforts will be.

White said more people are getting involved with the WDCU Mentors, which has 24 men working with 26 youths, "but the need remains great."

"At one point we received 600 calls {in just a few weeks} from mothers, grandmothers and aunts all saying, 'I need your help because I fear my child is going to get into trouble or worse,' " he said.

The mentors point out that many black youths are doing well academically and socially, but they are frightened by staggering statistics, such as those provided this year by the National Urban League, that chronicle a minefield of misery:Homicide is the leading cause of death nationally among black males ages 15 to 24. The homicide rate for black males in that age range is seven times greater than that for young white males. From 1987 to 1990, nearly 1,500 people, most of them black males of all ages, have been killed in Washington. Black men represent less than 10 percent of the U.S. population but make up nearly 50 percent of the country's prisoners. One study determined that there were more black men in prison than enrolled in college. During the 1989-90 school year, for example, fewer than 1,600 black males graduated from District public schools. During 1989, more than 6,000 black males were jailed at the District's prison at Lorton. One-third of black children live in poverty, compared with one in 100 for whites. Fifty percent of black children are raised in households headed by females.

Many mentors cite racism as a factor that erodes self-esteem and contributes to the problems facing black males. But they are focusing their efforts on assisting youths, often beginning in elementary school, in educational and career development and helping them to form morals, ethics and pride in who they are.

"A lot {of} these kids are angry," Jones said. "They are angry that the system has failed them, that we as adults have failed them. A lot of these kids are so angry that they are willing to die."

Ron Frazier, director of youth services in Alexandria and a member of Concerned Black Men, which has 29 mentors in Northern Virginia and 125 in the District, said many young blacks "feel oppressed, that their lives aren't worth anything. So they go after immediate gratification."

For Ronnie Haskins, 13, of Alexandria, being a member of the Untouchables has boosted his confidence that he can ignore the people around him who use and sell drugs.

"Some of my friends think that the Untouchables are cool," said Haskins, who received an award from the group for academic excellence. "But there are other people that try to pull me down. They say you know you're going to use drugs anyway." Haskins paused, then said matter-of-factly, "I know a lot of people that sell drugs."

Before joining the Untouchables, Haskins, who is the group's president, was hesitant about letting his buddies know he made good grades, because it "wasn't cool," Jones said.

"Now I strive to get good grades," Haskins said. The group "helps keep us off the streets. I respect them {the mentors} because they have done a lot for me. A whole lot of men wouldn't do this, and I appreciate it."

During a recent Untouchables session at Alexandria's Charles Houston Recreation Center, which sits in a neighborhood scarred by drug dealing, 16 youths and eight men talked about values, the youngsters' problems and ways to deal with them.

"What was the word for the day last week?" Jones asked. "Truth," the boys responded in unison. They applauded.

One by one the youths told their stories. One student said he may not get credit for his courses because he was suspended from school. "Don't be afraid to own up to your mistakes," Michael Johnson, 34, told him. "We will never turn our backs on you."

Another mentor, Larry Brown, asked the youth to suggest how he could have avoided his troubles. "You guys need to remember that first and foremost, we are responsible for ourselves," said Brown, 32.

At the end of the meeting, each youth raised his right hand and repeated the Untouchables' credo, in which they promise to uphold specific values, including to "always remain unified with my brothers and sisters . . . {and to} commit my life to the betterment of myself . . . . "

That same day at Carter G. Woodson Junior High School in Northeast Washington, which has had problems with drug trafficking near the campus, the Concerned Black Men of D.C. had arranged for a law professor to talk to 24 youths on how to prepare themselves for success.

"The things that we are doing aren't necessarily new," said mentor Brandon Johnson. "They were done in the past {within the black community} but informally."

Many of the men involved in the mentoring programs say much of the difficulty with the youths they see results from a lack of parenting by responsible males.

"Some of these kids today have no concept of what it is to be a man," said Skip Pagan, a 37-year-old sales manager who works with the WDCU Mentors. "They don't see enough examples . . . that you have to work hard, get an education. I'm talking about basic fundamental values, integrity."

According to Jeffery Johnson, "a lot of these young men need daddies. We've got to let these boys know that men love them and that everything will be okay."

Getting that message through is not easy, some mentors said.

"The biggest obstacle is the perception that you are somehow different from them," said Frazier, a member of Northern Virginia's chapter of Concerned Black Men. "They don't always understand that you have had to overcome similar obstacles. The way I overcome it is self-disclosure, like telling them that {I am} a first-generation college student."

James Moore, a substance abuse counselor with the city of Alexandria, also tells the youths of his struggles.

"I know a lot of these kids need role models," said Moore, 35, who grew up in the projects in Alexandria in a single-parent household. "A lot of the problems these kids have, I had too. But . . . the community helped. There doesn't seem to be as much togetherness now. A lot is missing, but I can show them that there is hope."