Bigs and Littles

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Six-year-old Joseph played his first game of checkers Tuesday.

At times he violated the rules, and sometimes it seemed he was having more fun playing with his little orange man, making the figure hold up checkers like Atlas holding the Earth.

But Joseph's Big Brother knows he'll get the knack of the game quickly.

"Joseph's quick to learn," said big brother Greg Leuthem, a student at Southeast Missouri State University. "But he really likes Jenga."

Leuthem isn't Joseph's biological brother -- he's his "Big," paired up through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. They've been together for nearly two years, and their relationship is the kind that is growing and gaining more prominence across the country -- youth mentoring.

In the four years leading up to 2004 the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization doubled its matches to 225,000. The eventual goal is to make 1 million matches like Leuthem and Joseph annually.

Such programs are growing on the local level, too. In 2004 Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri increased its active matches by 10 percent compared to the prior year. The local office, which serves Cape Girardeau County and Scott City, had 285 matches in 2005, with a goal of 1,000 by 2020.

There are an estimated 10,000 kids in the area who need help, according to research by the local Big Brother and Big Sisters.

But getting them the help they need is hard, for multiple reasons.

One of them is finding Bigs like Leuthem to volunteer their time. Right now the local agency has about 120 kids on its waiting list, and the hardest volunteers to find are males and African-Americans, said Ashley Barnett, program manager with the Cape Girardeau office.

As a result those who take the time to volunteer are all the more valuable. The commitment isn't much -- just a few hours a month.

But the thought of being responsible for someone else's child often scares off potential Bigs, Barnett said.

"That's why we feel our volunteers are so special ... they give their time every month to a child who's not theirs, just to be a friend," Barnett said.

Mentoring has proven benefits for children, especially at-risk children living in poverty, single-parent households or who have incarcerated parents. Studies have shown mentoring programs help those students in academics, social life and to avoid criminal behavior.

But often the volunteers see great benefits.

"Many times they say that they're getting more out of it than their Little is," said Ellen Carlson, a partnership builder with the local office. "And they want their friends and family to be a part of it, too."

While there are more kids than there are mentors, the numbers show that all the kids who need mentors aren't being served. Part of the reason is that parents have to ask mentoring organizations for help. Often they may not do so due to the stigma attached to asking for a mentor, even though Barnett said Big Brothers doesn't just exist to serve at-risk kids.

"We're here to serve all children who need a friend," she said.

Lisa, a single mom, wasn't scared of the stigma. She understands the need of boys to have another adult to look up to.

Not that she's not capable of the job, even though being a single mom is hard work. Lisa just wants someone else there to help reinforce the positive messages she tries to instill in her kids.

"It's good to have an older man or woman to look up to, other than mom," Lisa said.

After hearing about the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri and their services in Cape Girardeau through the local school district, she has put all three of her sons through the program.

Schools help agencies like Big Brothers match kids in need with mentors. The Cape Girardeau school district works closely with the program through its four elementaries and its middle school, hosting Big activities every week.

Dr. Dave Scala, Cape Girardeau superintendent, said mentoring has so many benefits he would like to see more of it in his district.

"It has been shown that having a significant adult person to visit with and make contact with and to assist, not just in work, but also being able to communicate and have some socialization, really helps with student achievement," Scala said.

In Jackson, school social workers are trying to get their own in-school mentoring project off the ground, said Ruth Ward, district social worker. But they're experiencing the same problem as the Bigs, only worse.

Ward said the school district wanted to start the program on a small basis, with about 10 volunteers. Many said they were interested, but the school still couldn't get enough volunteers.

"We're not giving up on it. We're still going to go out and talk to organizations in the community and try to drum up volunteers."

Other organizations also exist in the community that take part in mentoring activities -- the Missouri Mentoring Partnership, Project Hope, CHAMPS in Perryville, the 4-H Club and the Boys and Girls Club.

Some have programs for mentoring other than youth. The Missouri Mentoring Partnership is a not-for-profit in Cape Girardeau that pairs up expecting or new mothers under 22 with experienced mothers, giving them tips on pregnancy and child-rearing.

Until last year the Partnership also had a program for job mentoring to help young people find and keep employment, but it was closed when state funding dried up, said Amanda Flinn, youth specialist.

Like youth mentoring programs, the Partnership also has problems finding volunteers for its roughly six-hour-a-month commitment.

The challenges faced by mentoring programs can be disheartening at times, mentoring administrators say.

"We struggle with the fact that we want to be able to do more, but with the resources we have it's just not possible," said Barnett.

But the programs will continue to help as many as they can, with the hope that one day every person in need of a mentor will have one.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

Numbers:

Children across the nation attached to a Big for at least one year:

52 percent less likely to skip school

46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs

27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol as a minor

60 percent in the study were boys

over 50 percent were minorities

Source: Independent study by Public/Private Ventures

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: