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Susan Kang Sunderland

A Really Big Deal for Lots of Little Reasons

A new statewide Big Brothers Big Sisters organization will benefit kids on all islands. And on Oahu, you can help the cause at a bowling event the next two Saturdays.

The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children -Edward, Duke of Windsor

Being a parent is full of rewards, beautiful moments, laughs and love. But the reality of raising children today is that parents can easily become overwhelmed, exhausted and stressed. Parenting is one tough job.

No one knows this better than Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hawaii, a nonprofit organization that has worked with parents and kids for nearly 50 years. It started in 1963 to benefit “fatherless” boys on Oahu and has grown to a statewide organization that has mastered the art of mentoring youths.

What it has learned in the process of fostering friendships between kids and role models has inspiring lessons for all adults. In a society marred by incidents of child abuse, abductions and harassment, it’s useful to see how one organization crafts wholesome child development and safety.

Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Honolulu was featured on MidWeek‘s cover 10 years ago, spotlighting its president-chief executive officer Dennis Brown. At the time, Brown, Hawaii’s first Little Brother, spoke of a vision to take the community outreach efforts “from success to significance.”

Part of that vision was to consolidate the statewide operations of BBBS. At a recent unification ceremony staged at Ala Wai Elementary School, the dream became reality. BBBS Hawaii now encompasses operations on Oahu, Kaua’i, Maui and the Big Island.

Neill Char, BBBS board chairman, hails the accomplishment as “the most exciting milestone in our agency’s rich history.”

He adds, “We impact the lives of 1,200 Bigs and Littles very day. Statewide expansion and unification means we’re growing and will be serving more children.”

That’s good news for the benefactors of BBBS’ unique service to boys and girls, ages 6 to 18 (“Littles”), who get matched for one-on-one mentoring with adult volunteers (“Bigs”).

“The mentoring can be educational, recreational, talk-story time or a combination,” Brown says. “The goal is to foster relationships that have a lifelong positive impact on kids.”

Professional staff match children with volunteer mentors in long-term, one-on-one mentoring relationships at schools and in the community. Naturally this is done with the consent and endorsement of the parent. In fact, it is the parent who initiates the match by seeking the services of BBBS.

When Zack Lee’s single mother thought her son needed the guidance of an adult male, she contacted BBBS and got her 9-year-old child matched with businessman Lance Kawahara. Lee and Kawahara met up weekly to go spearfishing, diving, hiking, horseback riding, collecting comic books and playing baseball. Three decades later, the two are still in touch with each other, although Kawahara has relocated to Guam.

Lee is the successful restaurateur of Sugoi Bento and Catering in Honolulu, an entrepreneurial venture inspired by his Big Brother.

Another example is the friendship between Kauai’s Big Brother of the ear Alan Satta and Little Brother Allen, who have been matched for more than a year. On their first meeting, Satta took Allen to the fire station where he works. The lad had a great time seeing firsthand what it is like to be a firefighter. oung Allen says, “It is great having a Big Brother because we can do lots of activities together. I enjoy going surfing, watching movies, and even just hanging out with him makes me happy.”

There are hundreds of stories like this among BBBS case studies. They depict isolated children who seek a way to rebuild their self-identity and esteem. For these individuals, a mentoring match has worked miracles. These humanistic bonds have broken down psychological barriers of depressing self-worth and confusion.

The top three community-based BBBS clients are single parents, immigrant families with children adjusting to a new community, and military dependents with deployed spouses.

In Hawaii, the average match lasts 26 months. It’s a small time investment to help a child feel more confident, secure and loved. Currently there are 54 Littles looking for Bigs, both males and females.

BBBS has proof it works. A National Youth Outcome Survey, released last January, reveals after just one year, compared to the average student:

• 67 percent of Littles felt confident they would graduate from high school

• 58 percent felt socially accepted by their peers

• 73 percent think risky behavior, such as smoking and drugs, is wrong

• 61 percent either maintained or improved their grades in school

These are probably the same goals parents have for their offspring, along with the nagging pleas to clean their rooms, be more engaged with the family and to do their chores. (To which the usual response is, “I didn’t ask to be born.”)

Unlike online matchmaking services, BBBS has a stringent screening process for both Bigs and Littles. Background checks, reference requirements and match support services for the ongoing relationship assure the integrity and accountability of the program. A professional case worker monitors the relationship regularly.

The program also has spurred a support group of parents who help each other in the parenting role. Sharing their stories with laughter and tears, they find they are not alone in the sometimes frustrating, perplexing responsibility of controlling and confronting defiant youngsters, particularly teens.

Jill Matro, BBBS Hawaii vice president of programs and branch operations, facilitates the parents’ support group meetings. The social work executive recognizes that parents come from a place of unconditional love for their children. But when something happens to break up a happy home, they operate under a cloud of guilt and shame.

“Parenting well does not equal parenting perfectly,” says Matro, a mother of four. “We must put a pause on being too judgmental and embrace empathy. Children often act differently in the home than they do outside.”

Volunteers also notice this difference in their relationship with Littles. Kids behave one way on their mentoring outings, and change their personalities and attitudes at home.

“If my kid won’t listen to me, maybe he’ll listen to someone else,” says one parent.

Aha. Now we’re getting to the heart of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ core competence. There is something to having a trusted friend who provides a diversion from a lack of attention and focus at home, where busy parents and multiple siblings might complicate a child’s life.

BBBS locally and nationally has found a formula and model that works for changing young people’s attitudes toward life. With more than 100 years of experience nationally and 50 years in Hawaii, BBBS can be said to be mentoring the present to assure a positive future for children.

Its mission is to help children who, in turn, help parents. It’s a co-dependent relationship no matter how you look at it.

As Groucho Marx put it, “A child of 5 would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of 5.”

Join Big Brothers Big Sisters for the 2012 First Hawaiian Bank Bowl for Kids’ Sake on Saturdays, Sept. 8 and 15, at Aiea Bowl. Start a team or donate at BBBSHonoluluBowl.kintera.org.

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