“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” – Muhammad Ali
One of the best decisions that I’ve made was to focus on being an active citizen – making conscious decisions to give of my time as well as through other means. Over the past 14 years, I’ve been a proud Big Brother. It’s come with its range of emotions – laughter, surprise, sadness, disappointment, hope, accomplishment, fulfillment – none of which I would trade. But, I now see that I’m one of the longer-tenured “Bigs” and am in the unique position to actually provide some advice to current and prospective Big Brothers, Sisters and Couples!
My not-so-Little Brother Mario and I met when he was in fourth grade. I was 26 and had no recollection on what it was like to be 10 years old. I was nervous about the meeting and what we would do, much less talk about. We quickly bonded over sports, music, a similar family structure, and movies. He’s now a senior at K-State, having recently completed a marketing internship with UMKC’s Athletics Department. Here’s a pic from our first meeting, and eight years later at his high school graduation.
A few lessons that Mario taught me:
- Trust takes time, especially with young people. I was the first man to be a regular fixture in his life; he wasn’t used to that one-on-one time and I wasn’t aware of what it meant to him.
- Sometimes, kids fall asleep in your car when you’re on your way home from an outing. OK, often. It’s not a sign of boredom, but a sign of trust. They feel safe around you at that point. Not all Littles in the program come from a tumultuous background, but for those that do, it’s notable that they’ve let their guard down with you.
- If your Little isn’t talking to you, meet them where they are. Our first few months were quiet. Finally, I asked Mario that when he gets in my car each week,that he would tell me one new thing that happened to him since we last saw each other. I would do the same. We learned a lot about each other through those exercises. When he hit high school, it grew to us talking about one thing in the news that happened. Yes, Kobe scoring 83 points in a game absolutely counted as newsworthy.
- There is a lot of value in the family that you choose. I quickly became a regular presence at birthday parties, holiday events and the like for Mario and his mom. I also was privileged enough to be the person that taught him to tie a tie for his first Homecoming dance and was asked to join his family on the football field with him for Senior Night.
- Little things, especially experiential things, mean a ton. Over the years, I’ve asked Mario what were his favorite things that we’ve done together. We’ve had some high-ticket items (2012 MLB All Star Game, road trip to a Mizzou football game and Omaha, suit shopping). His list? When I showed him how to grill for the first time. Exposing him to “classic music” (Boyz II Men, Jackson Five). Playing basketball – and the first time that he beat me. It’s not about the money that you spend. It’s about the time.
- The unexpected occurs and whether you know it or not, you’re a part of their support system. Mario’s family experienced great tragedy with the violent loss of his teenage sister and two young nephews (from another sister) in the same event. Our relationship became much more meaningful after that. Also, the positively unexpected occurs…when essays that you work on together turn into multiple scholarships to college.
While our official match has ended, he’s forever a part of my family and I am a part of his. It doesn’t hurt that we resemble each other and look like blood brothers.
Currently, my wife Carrie and I are a Big Couple, more than two years into our match with our Little Brother Terrion. While Carrie was an active part of Mario’s life, we weren’t married when my match with Mario occurred. The dynamic of two adults present for nearly all outings adds something different to our equation. He’s a seventh grader who is extremely observant about the world around him, interested in exploration and wildly clever.
A few lessons that Terrion has taught me:
- In a Big Couple match, it’s not uncommon for the bond to be initially stronger with the Big Sister and the Little Brother. Carrie and Terrion took to each other very quickly. They have similar senses of humor and are both a bit introverted, so their connection goes beyond a “mother figure”. But, from talking with other Big Couples, it seems that as young male Littles grow older, they have more “man” questions and that connection grows.
- The outside world makes its way into your daily outings. We were recently driving home from the annual Match Banquet, when Terrion saw an “IRAQ” sticker on car. “Gene, Carrie – is Iraq good or bad?” This turned into a lesson about history and people being treated as people, beyond political lines and news headlines.
- Seriously, use the grilling trick. It works wonders. Same results with Terrion, along with him loving his first time visiting batting cages and playing catch with a baseball mitt.
- Change occurs in small, but impactful, ways. At our introductory meeting with our Case Manager, Terrion’s family and Terrion, we were warned that he doesn’t EVER smile for photos. True to form, he didn’t smile when we took him bowling for our first official outing. Soon after though, he saw that we don’t take ourselves seriously most of the time and he became a young man that smiles very, very often – especially for photos with us. This one is of us after one of our annual Planet ComicCon visits.
- Develop a quality relationship with your Case Manager. We really enjoyed working with Jessie Chastain and having her get to know us, as people and as a Match. While all Case Managers have been supportive, each has a unique case load. It’s made a difference when we’ve needed support for unexpected family transitions.
- Be open to making new friends at Match outings. For those who are parents, the idea of “play dates” is nothing new. However, for Carrie and I, it was a surprisingly good addition to our experience. After a baseball camp outing last summer with Terrion (where he was a rock star, by the way), a group of Bigs took our Littles to Winstead’s for lunch and milkshakes. Kids at one table, adults at another. It turned into great bonding experiences for each. Now, we check in with our other Big friends to see if they will be at other match events before we sign up. It’s a wonderful support system and we run ideas by each other, as well.
I hope that you consider becoming a Big, or continuing in your Match journey!