Non-profit, Slide Show — June 24, 2012 11:57 pm

Friends in Big Places


Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs children in need with adult mentors, creating relationships that can last a lifetime.

Justin Fuller (above, right) and his "little" Michael at the Krohn Conservatory Butterfly Show in Cincinnati. Photo by Kim Scaff.


As children swarm around the roller-skating rink that swallows the interior of The Fun Factory in Cincinnati, out-maneuvered grown-ups trail behind the wild army of kids, struggling to stay balanced atop the alien, four-wheeled contraptions on their feet. The children aren’t doing much better; in the chaos of uncoordinated legs, clumsy stumbles occasionally result in dramatic thumps on the hard floor. Kids crash and topple over the rink’s ledge, and their adult counterparts hold onto the rails for dear life. Almost everyone looks like amateurs in their rented skates, especially when compared to Justin Fuller and his little brother, Michael. The duo glides along with grace and ease under the disorienting lights and disco balls.

Fuller and Michael orbit the rink at a BBBS event. Photo by Danielle Koval.

Fuller, 23, and Michael, 10, have visited the Fun Factory once before, but they’re here today for an event sponsored by the Cincinnati chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national nonprofit organization that pairs “littles” (kids aged 8 to 18) with ”bigs” (adults ranging in age from 18 to 70) who serve as positive role models for the youngsters. Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) has been around for more than 100 years, operates in more than 350 communities throughout the United States, and targets children who are raised by single parents, live in poverty or are coping with an incarcerated parent. In 2011, the Cincinnati chapter paired more than 1,311 children with local bigs, and the results are impressive: 99 percent of those children are in school and are substance-abuse free, according to the organization’s follow-up research on its matched pairs. In a city where 30 percent of the population lives in poverty, an organization that reaches out to disadvantaged children can have big impact.

Michael contemplates his winged friend. Photo by Kim Scaff.

Big Brothers Big Sisters offers two types of programs: community-based and site-based, explains Deb Haas, PR and marketing manager for the Cincinnati chapter. Within the community-based program, the bigs and littles schedule their own activities, whether it’s going to a local park, watching a movie or playing video games.  “What we ask from those volunteers is—with as much stability as you can—try to get together once a week,” Haas says. “We have a lot of people that take the kids to college campuses. An incredible number of these kids are the first generation in their family to graduate from high school and go to college.”

Within the site-based program, the bigs and littles have a set schedule and often meet at school.  “We have a lot of young professionals who do this after work [hours],” Haas says. “It appeals to [the busier adults] because it’s one hour a week.”

Michael and Fuller, who participate in the community-based program, aren’t brothers by birth, but they share an undeniable bond. “I guess it depends on the match, but it’s almost like you become family,” Fuller says.  “He’ll come over to my house. He always asks how my mom and brother are doing. I took him and his little brother and sister to church with me on Sunday.”

But Michael’s family faces some real challenges: His father is in jail and his mother lives in Kentucky, so he doesn’t see her often.  He and two of his siblings live with their grandparents, and getting one-on-one time with an adult like Fuller is very valuable for Michael. Fuller is someone he can trust, talk to and look up to.  “I think they just want another role model [for him],” Fuller says about Michael’s grandparents. “They still do a lot of stuff with him, but I know it can be hard [for them] to get out.

Fuller grew up in a single-parent family and says he benefitted from his relationships with adult mentors. Photo by Kim Scaff.

When it comes to benefitting from positive adult mentorship, Fuller can relate. He had a mentor when he attended Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, and now he’s inspired to fill that role for another child. “I think a lot of kids just need someone to hang out with or talk to,” Fuller says. “I grew up without a father. So just to have another positive male in my life helped.”

Fuller, a psychology graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, now works for Jewish Vocational Services, an organization that provides educational, vocational and community integration services for people and children with developmental disabilities. “I like working with young people and kids,” Fuller says. “It’s always fun. It’s rewarding.”

When he began volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters more than a year ago, Fuller was matched with Michael through the help of a caseworker, who identifies common interests among the bigs and littles to help ensure a successful and positive relationship. “Initially with Big Brothers Big Sisters, they’ll come to your house and make sure you have a good home environment,” Fuller says. “You can pick what age range you want. They’ll call and check in with you and also give you ideas if you can’t think of stuff to do.”

Haas says the organization’s caseworkers play a key role in the matching process and in helping sustain the relationships. “The reason this kind of mentoring works is because it’s long-term and professionally supported by our caseworkers,” she says. “They don’t just match the next volunteer with the next child. The caseworkers ask questions. They ask [the potential bigs] what they like and what types of things they don’t handle well. These kids come from rough backgrounds and conflicts come up.”

Photo by Kim Scaff.

Fuller spends time with Michael at least once a week. He says he and Michael try to attend the monthly BBBS events—like today’s roller-skating outing—but adds that they have no problem being creative and coming up with their own activities. They’ve played video games together, visited the nearby amusement park Kings Island, toured a butterfly show at Cincinnati’s Krohn Conservatory and visited Parky’s Farm, which offers pony rides and plenty of goats, pigs, chickens, horses and sheep to pet. (“We saw some wild turkeys!” Michael excitedly reports.)

They both love sports, so plenty of their outings have been sports-related—ranging from hockey to football to baseball. “[Michael] plays for Walnut Hills so we went to some football games,” Fuller says. “We went to a basketball game [at the College of Mount St. Joseph]. We want to go to a [Cincinnati] Reds game, but we haven’t been there yet.”

When Fuller and Michael get together, fun is always on the agenda. Photo by Kim Scaff.

The two are clearly a good match for each other. “It has been a good experience for me,” Fuller says. “There’s never been a time when he was like, ‘Justin, I didn’t like doing this.’ I learn a lot from him. We always have fun together.”

And for children like Michael, that kind of fun is a mighty good thing—almost as good as having a big brother. 



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