Giving thanks for present-day heroes
Big Brothers Big Sisters VC changes lives of both children and mentors
By Carla Iacovetti 11/21/2012
“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” — Fred Rogers
Everybody loves a hero. We are part of a generation that has evolved from a world of cartoon superheroes, and those characters bridged the gap between humanity and fantasy while giving inspiration to the children of that day. You remember them — cartoon characters like G.I. Joe, the Transformers, Underdog, Spiderman, Superman or He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. We will never forget these unremitting conquerors of evil — characters that kept every little boy mesmerized while he aspired to be just like them.
Of course, true heroes have nothing to do with superpowers. They don’t wear capes, spew fire from their mouths; they don’t wiggle their noses, shoot webs from building to building or fly through the air “faster than a speeding bullet.” True heroes shine light in a dark corner of everyday life. These heroes are everywhere, and they are common folks like you and me, simply making a difference in the world, even if ever so small.
When Louise Vera made a call to Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, she had no idea that this program would have the kind of impact it has had on her daughter Jasmine, who is now 21 and coming out of the program, but it changed her life forever.
As a single mother, Vera had a difficult time juggling the responsibilities of raising two children alone while taking care of her parents. “With all of the responsibilities, it wasn’t feasible for me to support my kids the way they needed it — I had far too much on my plate,” Vera said. “Having mentors for my kids was such a relief.”
At around 13 years of age, Jasmine started hanging with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble, which included running away. “I had a lot of hard times with my daughter. I was overwhelmed, and I didn’t know where to turn,” Vera said.
One day, at the height of her concerns, Vera saw a television advertisement about BBBS, and she immediately called the office in Ventura. Because there is such a high demand for mentors, she was put on a waiting list. “The first match didn’t work out, and sometimes that happens, but then Becky Ford came into our life. If it weren’t for Becky, I don’t even think my daughter would have graduated from high school, let alone go to college. Jasmine’s life has been completely transformed. Becky has been so much more than a mentor — she’s like family,” Vera said. Jasmine is currently in college studying to be a nurse, actively involved with a church and living very independently.
Being a Big Brother helps children and youth achieve a better outlook in life.
Becky Ford is the enrollment match specialist (case manager) at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ventura (BBBSVC). When working with Vera to try and find a match, she decided to mentor Jasmine herself. “At the time, my youngest child was in high school. I saw a need with Jasmine, and I wanted to help. When you become aware that there’s a need, you look at your life and say, ‘I can do this. I just love my little sister,’ ” Ford said.
Ford has been able to see firsthand the impact mentorship plays in so many kids’ lives. She herself was mentored from the time she was 10 until she was 15, and it made a lasting impression on her life.
Jasmine is the first girl that Ford mentored, and even though she is now out of the program, they are still in constant communication. “We have a relationship — it’s for life. Now that she’s older and can drive, she often comes to see me. It’s been such a rewarding and worthwhile thing to do, and the relationship that you build with your little sister or little brother is just wonderful,” Ford said.
Youth mentoring has been around for ages, and there are a variety of ways that adults can get involved with mentoring, including community volunteer groups, school-related organizations, church-based youth groups or social service programs like BBBS.
According to the Encyclopedia of Informal Education, state mentoring groups are often the most effective: “The classic definition of mentoring is of an older, experienced guide who is acceptable to the young person and who can help ease the transition to adulthood by a mix of support and challenge. In this sense it is a developmental relationship in which the young person is inducted into the world of adulthood.”
In 1904, Ernest Coulter, the former journalist who was troubled over the way orphans were treated in the court system, started BBBS by recruiting 39 volunteers at the Men’s Club of New York City’s Central Presbyterian Church.
The time spent with theses kids helps them to believe in themselves so they may one day achieve their full potential.
“There is only one possible way to save that youngster: to have some earnest, true man volunteer to be his big brother, to look after him, help him to do right, make the little chap feel that there is at least one human being in this great city … who cares whether he lives or dies,” Coulter said.
With more than 500 chapters nationwide, this organization is still one of the largest and most reputable mentoring programs in the United States and has several programs to assist with the needs of various children and youth.
Since 1970, BBBSVC has been serving this community, and the need for male mentors is greater than ever before.
“Recently I received a phone call from a gentleman whose wife died of cancer a few years ago, and he called us looking for help,” said Pedro Chavez, the director of education and public affairs for BBBSVC. “He is hard-working, and he has been trying to keep both of his kids stable since they lost their mother. But despite his efforts, his son is trying to numb his pain by using drugs and hanging with the wrong crowd. This kid needs a mentor, but we have no one that’s stepped up to the plate. Sadly, he’s been put on a waiting list.”
Single parenting is never easy for anyone, but when you add the complication of the death of a parent, sometimes coping gets complicated and you need help. BBSVC, however, currently has 150 kids on a waiting list that is growing, and 70 percent of those kids are boys.
“We get referrals from school psychologists, social workers, the county, 211 help line (social services hotline) and individuals calling in for help (like this single father), but because there is a shortage of men who want to mentor, these kids are often put on a waiting list,” Chavez said.
The recognition of the need for this kind of role-model need in today’s youth is rising. Last year, Carlos Andrés Gómez, an award-winning writer and performer from New York City, offered support to BBBS with appearances and fundraisers to promote male mentor recruiting.
“Today’s young men lack positive role models. There is a void of men to look up to: absentee fathers, incarceration, deployment, violence and early death because of environmental and social conditions — it’s tough to know where to turn,” Gómez said.
As part of Gómez’s quest to promote solutions to the many challenges young men today face, the former social worker and public school teacher wrote the self-revealing book, Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood. In his book, Gómez makes public his own past and the challenges that many Latino men face, with the hope of influencing young men and inspiring grown men to embrace mentorship.
Gómez is not the only high-profile personality endorsing BBBS. Celebrities Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston, the stars of the recently released movie Chasing Mavericks, talk about the impact that male mentorship can have on a young man’s life. The film tells the true story about surfing phenomenon Jay Moriarity (Weston), who discovers mavericks, some of the biggest and deadliest waves in the world near his Santa Cruz, Calif., home. Moriarity is mentored by local legend Frosty Hesson (Butler), who trains him to survive surfing the wave. As Frosty and Jay embark on their quest, their time together becomes about much more than surfing … a wonderful bond of friendship forms that changes both of their lives. As part of the release of the movie, 20th Century Fox and Walden Media produced a public service announcement (PSA) video to help BBBS raise money and recruit mentors, particularly men. See http://tinyurl.com/cabuqrp
Manuel Carmona, an electrical engineer who lives here in Ventura originally from Varese, Italy, has been a big brother since March 2011.
“I’ve wanted to work as a volunteer with kids for a very long time,” Carmona said. “When I started looking for an opportunity to do that, this organization just struck a chord.”
Carmona’s little brother had no aspirations to attend college, but now he’s convinced that he will go.
“I travel around the world a lot for my job, and he’s become fascinated with the outside world,” Carmona said. “He’s somehow made a connection that sticking with something and going to college will pay off. Whether it’s in one-on-one conversations, or receiving my e-mails with photos from faraway places, my little brother now sees the advantages of education and stick-to-itiveness.”
As a mentor, Carmona is excited to be a part of opening his little brother’s eyes to the world around him, by showing him a side of life that he might normally never have seen. “At the end of the day, they begin to make that connection, and this is invaluable. It will last a lifetime. I can’t say enough about this program,” says Carmona.
Veronica Roblez-Soliz, the board president for the Oxnard School District, is impressed with BBBSVC. “I see the essential role that they play in the community with the development of the children that they mentor,” she said.
Currently, BBBSVC is teaming up with Oxnard School District. It is in the process of working with Chavez, Montalvo and Ramona Elementary Schools to get their Lunch Buddy Program underway. Essentially, this program focuses on the less popular kids — those kids who have possibly suffered at the hands of bullying and sit alone during lunch. Many of these kids have social anxiety. The lunch buddy will come once a week to have lunch with the kid.
“In my experience I have seen a positive change in school attendance, attitude, self-confidence and the avoidance of risky behavior with kids who have been mentored like this,” Roblez-Soliz said. “My hope is that individuals in the community will come out and work together.”
Currently, Ventura County’s dropout rate is approaching 15 percent, and that equates to more than 1,200 youth in our community who are dropping out of high school. GuideStar Philanthropedia and other watchdog-type independent organizations that assess nonprofits have designated BBBS as the No. 1 nonprofit in the country. The Boys & Girls Club of America is No. 2. The percentage of youth who come through the program and actually finish high school is at 95 percent.
Even with such a success rate, BBBSVC is in desperate need of male role models. In addition, 70 percent of the kids who are on a waiting list for a mentor here in Ventura County are Latino boys. “There are a number of misconceptions about volunteering with this program. One of those is that you have to spend money to be a mentor, and in an economy where things are so tight, it has been a concern, but this is more about an investment of your time. This isn’t just about being a handout, though we are helping with that as well,” Chavez said.
BBBSVC has alliances with a number of organizations that provide mentors with free tickets to events they can take their little brother or sister to. Some of those organizations are the Rubicon Theatre Company, the L.A. Dodgers, River Ridge, Ventura County Fair and various restaurants in the community. “Money should never be a reason not to mentor a child,” said Chavez.
“Mentors have the time to give back. We’re not forced to do this, we choose to, but in giving of my time, I’ve gotten so much back from my little guy. It’s hard to put in words. I don’t have any children or young siblings, but just being able to spend time with my little brother is sobering and actually keeps me in check. I have him to thank for that,” said Carmona.
The following is a heartfelt note of thanks that a 17-year-old youth who is going through the program sent to Chavez.
My initial response to the offer of joining the Big Brothers Big Sisters program was not necessarily one of great enthusiasm. I was more curious than anything else. However, after meeting with my big brother, I quickly realized that this program would mean so much more to me than I had initially anticipated. Our friendship quickly grew and I realized that he was really my friend and truly a supportive person, something I had been lacking for many years now. He quickly became the one person who I considered family. He has always stayed as a steady support for me and has treated me with greater kindness than I would have expected from anyone. When I have difficulty of any kind I always know that he is the one person I can talk to openly, and express myself to. … The Big Brothers Big Sisters program has provided me with my one and only true and steadfast friend, who I know will always be there for me. I love my Big Brother, and I know he loves me as well. He’s the only person I can say that I love and can consider a part of my family. To the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization, I say thank you, because whether you know it or not, you have made my existence a much happier one. You guys rock!