When Wendy founder Dave Thomas died on Jan. 8 of liver cancer at age 69, he was mourned by family, friends, colleagues—and Tino, the lively 15-year-old boy he was mentoring online through PEOPLE's Digital Heroes Campaign. Even though the two had only started e-mailing each other three weeks before Christmas, Tino "was pretty shook up" about Thomas's death, says John Gladbach, who teaches Tino at El Pueblo Boys' & Girls' Ranch, a Pueblo, Colo., center for troubled teens, many of whom have endured abuse or neglect. "He told me he wanted to make Dave proud."

Providing troubled adolescents with adult role models is what Digital Heroes is all about. The program, run in partnership with America Online (part of AOL Time Warner, which owns PEOPLE), and in association with the National Mentoring Partnership, PowerUP and the Waitt Family Foundation, kicked off its second year last fall, pairing 80 mentors from the world of entertainment (actors Glenn Close and Matt Damon), sports (tennis champ Chris Evert and New York Knick Allan Houston) and business (lawyer Johnnie Cochran) with underprivileged 13-to 17-year-old kids from across the country. Matches are based on shared interests or backgrounds. Thomas, for example, had been beaten by his adoptive father during childhood. "Tino said, 'This guy knows what my life is like—he knows where I've been,' " Gladbach says.

Mentors are required to have meaningful e-mail exchanges with their young charges at least once a week for a year, an arrangement that has worked surprisingly well. "Everyone was really wary about whether kids would be able to connect online with an adult," says program coordinator Kristine Finn. "But we found that they are willing to open up more quickly because there's less of an intimidation factor."

In fact the program has proven such a success that other corporations are considering following suit. Thomas would surely approve. When asked on a questionnaire why he was participating in DHC, he wrote, "Mentors played a significant role in helping me grow. I am an example of how mentors can shape the lives of young people."