‘I get to be a child again’
Mentors are fundamental but in short supply at Big Brothers Big Sisters
The African saying “It takes a village to raise a child” has been thrown around in conversation and even became the title of a book. In La Plata County, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Colorado takes the lead in helping the community serve the role of village to support children who are facing adversity.
Adversity can come in many forms, said Tracy Cornutt, the chapter’s executive director.
“Sometimes, it’s a single mother who wants a male role model for her son or a single father who wants female role models for his daughters,” she said. “Sometimes, the family is going through tough times, or the parents are working two jobs to survive in Durango. And sometimes, a parent is incarcerated or struggling with drug or alcohol abuse.”
The organization experienced a 26 percent drop in matches in 2012, and there are about 50 children on the waiting list.
“People moved out of the area, took second jobs or longer hours. And we have fewer people volunteering to take on the longer commitment that is required to be a Big,” Cornutt said
‘Remember Jerry Sandusky?’
In these days of high-profile pedophile cases, Big Brothers Big Sisters faces some unique challenges in making matches.
“When I talk to a group of potential donors, and they ask how come it costs money when all the mentors are volunteers, I say, ‘Remember Jerry Sandusky?’” Cornutt said. “People are trusting us with the safety of their children, and we take that very seriously.”
It takes from two to four volunteers to achieve each match, and all have to be screened, interviewed, run through a criminal data base and trained. And that’s just the beginning.
“We do a lot of match-support follow up and monitoring, asking very pointed questions of the child, the mentor and the parents,” Cornutt said. “People hate the idea of paying for staff, but we can’t do what we do without staff.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters asks mentors to make a one-year commitment to meet with their Little for a few hours each week. Sometimes Bigs run into quandaries, and the Big Brother staff coaches them through those, as well.
“Kids go through different stages,” Cornutt said. “A girl going into middle school changes, and the Big says ‘she’s a different girl.’ Sometimes, the child asks an awkward question, and the staff is here to help the Big through it.”
As far as parent Ed Willmett is concerned, all children can benefit from having someone outside their family take an interest in them. His daughters Crystal, 14, and Jadah, 12, both have Big Sisters.
“That extra outing makes such a difference,” he said. “Especially with mixed families like ours, with stepparents, there are tensions and things that go on at home. They need an extra person to confide in, go out with.”
As a boy, Willmett was involved with an organization called Partners, which is similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters in Grand Junction, after his parents divorced when he was 8.
“I know what it means,” he said. “I had four sisters and a single mom, and having a guy to go out with and talk to was so important.”
A Little becomes a Big
When Catherine Schaefer was 5, her father died, leaving her mother with five young sons and a daughter to raise on her own.
Twenty years later, Schaefer still remembers Diane Mee, her Big Sister. Their match only lasted one year, but it made a difference.
“I remember going on a trip to Albuquerque to visit museums and the zoo,” she said. “It was nice to have someone to play with when my mom was too busy and stressed. It was good for my mom, too.”
Since last spring, Schaefer, who turns 26 this week, has been a Big herself, matched with Anjelica, 7. The duo has done everything from sledding, horseback riding and bowling to sleepovers, baking cookies and playing video games in their weekly outings.
Anjelica remembers vividly the Wii game of driving cars.
“It didn’t end well,” she said. “I kept crashing and driving into walls.”
Anjelica, when asked if Schaefer is a good Big Sister, wrinkles her nose and giggles.
“That’s a tough one,” she says, writing “I love you” to her Big on a napkin as she speaks. “I guess so.”
Schaefer, who is completing a degree in business and entrepreneurship while working as a massage therapist and in her family’s real estate management company, is able to pursue so many activities with Anjelica because of the discounts the organization has arranged and the many outings it sponsors. Among the options are free meals at McDonald’s, inexpensive ski and snowboard lessons at Durango Mountain Resort and bowling at the Rolling Thunder Bowling Lanes in Ignacio.
“Do you want to learn to snowboard?” she asked her Little Sister.
The immediate response was a negative shake of the head.
“I tried that once with my brother,” Anjelica said. “It didn’t end well.”
When Schaefer was a Little, one of her brothers was also matched with a Big. Another brother was never successfully matched, and she is acutely aware of the many children still waiting for a Big.
“We have so much fun, and I get to be a kid again,” she said. “I watch her do things she might not have done, and I do things I might not have done. I don’t know why more people don’t do it.”