Being a mentor doesn't mean being perfect

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Susan Schindler and her little sister, Kyeshia, have great fun playing tag or running around the playground at Blanchard Elementary School in Cape Girardeau while Holly Zoellner and her little sister, Jazmon, spend most of their time together at the park.

Both Schindler and Zoellner are mentors in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program that serves Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Mo., and Scott City, Mo.

Schindler is part of a site-based Big Brothers Big Sisters program that matches college-age students with elementary-age children in need of a mentor. Zoellner is part of the community program that involves people of all ages.

Kyeshia, a second-grader, "is a bundle of energy," Schindler said. "We run around and play tag, mostly just to wear her out."

The two meet twice each month at the school for about two hours each visit while Zoellner visits with her little sister about two or three times each month.

Finding activities is sometimes hard because Jazmon is only 7, so walking around at the mall wouldn't be fun for her and she doesn't have much homework from school, Zoellner said.

"We do a lot of the Big Brothers Big Sisters activities," she said. The pair has been to a Christmas party, a pool party, the SEMO District Fair and Homecomers in Jackson. "But a lot of times we just go to the park because that's what she likes to do."

Only takes time

Becoming a mentor doesn't take anything but time, said Alison Staggs, executive director for the local agency.

And even then it's not a huge commitment: only an hour or two each week at most.

Cape Girardeau offers several different programs that emphasize mentoring relationships from helping families move from welfare to work to spending time with teen-age mothers. (see graphic)

People often say they'd consider the Big Brothers Big Sisters program if it didn't involve so much time, Staggs said. "It's one Saturday afternoon or taking them to church or watching a movie with them. We're all busy, but it's things like that -- maybe just putting off watching one football game."

And being a mentor doesn't mean attaining perfection first, she said.

"People think they're not a good enough role model. That's so untrue. We're not asking them to be perfect or be Mother Teresa," Staggs said. "They don't have to be better than what they are to be a good role model."

'Anyone can do it'

Finding children and parents interested in the program is easy; the program is open to children from 5 to 17. School counselors often help spread the word, Staggs said. But bigs, as the adults are called once they enter the program, are always in need. Most of the time men are needed more critically than women to serve as mentors. To become a mentor you must be:

18 years old

Undergo an application process which includes interviews and criminal background checks.

It is helpful for community-based bigs to have a vehicle and insurance but isn't necessary.

"Anyone can do it," Staggs said.

The local chapter, which is affiliated with the St. Louis program, has made about 110 matches since beginning last fall.

Most often those high numbers come after about years of working in the community, said Staggs. But Southeast Missouri has been receptive to the idea.

Once the public becomes aware of a need, they are always quick to respond, said Nancy Jernigan, executive director for the Area Wide United Way.

"Once something is explained, they'll do whatever it takes," Jernigan said. "Everyone has something to offer."

Mentoring plays a vital role in the development of young children, and it adds to the life of the mentor, she said.

Zoellner has been encouraging her friends and coworkers at the Community Counseling Center to consider the program because of the fun and rewards she's had.

Since their first few months together, Zoellner can tell that Jazmon is opening up and is more forthcoming in conversations. "She's really listening to what I say," Zoellner said.

After telling Jazmon her new roommate's name during one visit and then mentioning that the two should meet in another conversation later, Jazmon was quick to recall the roommate's name, Zoellner said.

"At first it was a little awkward but she's opened up more to me now," she said. "I think she trusts me and listens and cares about me too."

Schindler also noticed that her little sister was inquisitive and wanted to know more about her. Although the pair isn't together often, they've developed a good relationship. "She loves calling me her big sister."

Missed her on Christmas

And just like family they two miss each other when they're away. "On Christmas I wanted to call her and see what she got," Schindler said. "We'd been talking about Santa."

Emma Beel, a senior at Notre Dame Regional High School, is also a big sister to Breanna, 9. The two meet at Jefferson Elementary School twice each month.

Beel first heard about Big Brothers Big Sisters from her mother and decided to apply. "It doesn't take a lot of time," she said, and her boss at the Blimpie's in Jackson, Mo., has been cooperative.

Breanna talks about her family and what's happening at school during their visits, Beel said. And they two often play soccer or basketball outdoors. "I'm a big kid at heart," she said.

But there can't be matches if there aren't enough volunteers. And Staggs would like to see Big Brother Big Sister continue to grow with site-based program in all the county's schools and even farther down into the Bootheel.

"We know we need to expand but we have to be solvent in Cape Girardeau first," she said.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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