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Looking for a friend

Soumitro Sen
Staff writer

Twelve-year-old Keith Fought needs a male role model in his life. He’s been craving one for the past two years.

His mother, Sheri Madrid, approached the Nevada County chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters – an international organization that works to provide mentors for children – but there’s an acute shortage of male volunteers to act as mentors in the community.

Children between the ages of 6 and 14 are enrolled in the program and may continue to participate until they are 18 years old.

Madrid recalls also having signed up her godson with Big Brothers Big Sisters about five years ago, but he graduated from high school before he got a big brother.

“We have children coming to us all the time asking for a big brother or a big sister,” said Dena Valin, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “At any given time, we have 20 to 30 kids on our waiting list. Right now we have 21 kids, of which 16 are boys. That’s always the case. I think we have more boys because they have no father figure in their lives, as they are raised by their moms.

“Also, it is more difficult to recruit men to become big brothers than it is to recruit women to become big sisters. I don’t know why that is. But it is true across all Big Brothers agencies.”

Children who approach the organization often belong to low-income, single-parent families, Valin said. Sometimes they’re struggling academically or socially in some way. And almost as a rule, a young boy is matched by the agency with a man and a girl is paired always with a woman, unless a couple volunteers to mentor a child together.

“We offer two programs, the community-based mentoring program and the school-based mentoring program,” Valin said. “The main difference is where the big brothers and sisters meet their little brothers and sisters. If it is the community-based mentoring program, they’ll do activities together in the community. In the school-based mentoring program, they do activities in school.”

Mentors in the community-based program can take their little brothers or sisters out for hiking, movies, games, or to restaurants.

“The volunteers bear the costs, so we encourage them to find inexpensive activities,” Valin said. ‘We have what we call, ‘community partners’ – local businesses – who offer discounts to our matches.

“In our school programs, they play board games, do arts and crafts, read and do school projects.”

Mark Hall, a 47-year-old Nevada City resident, has been a “big brother” to Aaron Lane of Grass Valley for more than eight years.

“I was getting older and still was not married,” Hall said. “I wanted to spend time mentoring children, but it looked like I wasn’t going to have children of my own at that time. That’s what made me interested in the program to start with.”

Hall recalled feeling reluctant to commit to the organization to spend time with his “little brother” on a regular basis. Yet today he is one of the longest standing big brothers on record at the local agency.

Big Brothers Big Sisters follows a definite procedure before accepting a person as a mentor.

“We have a very thorough screening process for all our volunteers,” Valin said. “Every volunteer submits applications with references. Then we interview them. We do a criminal background check and check them on the registered sexual offender’s list. If they are in the community, we check their driving records and their home environments for safety.”

To be a mentor in the community program, one has to be at least 18 years old. In the school program, a big brother or sister must be at least 16 years old. But there is hardly any maximum age limit. The Nevada County agency has mentors who in their 80s, Valin said. The majority, however, are in their 40s and 50s.

“It keeps my compassion in humanity alive,” Hall said about the overall mentoring experience. “It’s a completely different activity than working on adult relationships. It has the advantage of not having to be a disciplinarian, like a parent. This way you are always his friend, no matter what he does. And you get to be there for those magic moments when certain joys of childhood appear.”

Children like Fought, waiting on Big Brothers Big Sisters’ list, must hope someone steps up to share their moments of childhood happiness with them.

“By the time he gets a big brother, he could be a big brother to somebody himself,” his mother said. “I believe he would like to do that when he gets older.”

To contact staff writer Soumitro Sen, e-mail soumitros@theunion.com or call 477-4229.

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