‘Making a big difference’

Tony Lange

Ninety-one kids in county await placement with new Big Brother or Big Sister

“Gil was pretty much what I wanted to the T,” says Zach Wilson, who has two younger siblings living in Pennsylvania. “I like spending time with them, so when I’m at school, Gil kind of fills that void.” Caitlin Sirse | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Zach Wilson, sophomore marketing major, stands with Gil Lucas, his “little” brother. Both like to play golf and plan to go to the driving range when the weather gets warmer, Wilson said. Caitlin Sirse | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Gil, an 8-year-old who attends elementary school in Kent, waited more than two years to be matched in September with his first “Big,” Zach Wilson, sophomore marketing major.

Andrea Neidert, executive director of Big Brothers and Sisters of Portage County, said age, gender and location are deciding factors when pairing children with their future mentors. Ninety-one children in the county are currently waiting to be matched with a Big Brother or Sister.

“They’ll either age out or their parents will just take them off the list,” Neidert said. “I can’t even give you an average wait, because girls always wait shorter periods because we have more women volunteers. But if I have a girl in the far corner of the county, she may never get matched.”

Wilson, one of Kent State’s 45 student volunteers involved in the program, said Neidert, who interviews potential Bigs, asked him about everything, including his hobbies, interests and personality, to ensure compatibility with his “Little.”

“Gil was pretty much what I wanted to the T,” said Wilson, who has two younger siblings living in Pennsylvania. “I like spending time with them, so when I’m at school, Gil kind of fills that void. Just having a Little, it’s a really special thing. It’s a way to give back to the community and get involved.”

Gil, a third-grader who lives in a single-parent home, expressed mutual feelings for Wilson.

“It was fun, and I just wanted to hang out every day,” Gil said, reflecting back to his first one-on-one experience with Wilson, who took him to a golf driving range to break the ice. “Sometimes it’s really good spending time because when I feel bad and I get to spend time with him, it makes me feel better.”

A lot of children who enter the program have low self-esteem or no sense of the future, Neidert said.

Nationally, Littles who participate in the Big Brothers and Sisters program are 52 percent less likely to skip school and 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, according to the organization’s Web site.

“Oh, this cool person likes me and they’re not my mom,” Neidert said, impersonating a Little. “They care about me,” she continued. “It’s important to them that I get to go to school. We talk about drugs and not using drugs, smoking and not smoking.”

Being a Big and making a difference in a kid’s life is a good feeling, Wilson said, and now he has his peers looking up to him.

“They say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re doing that,’ or, ‘I wish I could do that,'” Wilson said, changing his tone. “A lot of people say they wish they could, when they really can. They just don’t realize it.”

Wilson, who is taking 18 credit hours, working a part-time job at Kent State’s Ice Arena and heading the recruiting committee for his business fraternity’s senior vice president, said fellow students think they don’t have enough time for it but they really do.

“I mean, I’m in a lot of things,” Wilson said, including spending time with Gil each week. “And I still have time for this. I make time for it because I enjoy it. When I have finals or I’m crammed for time, I even tell Gil like, ‘Oh Gil, I might not be able to hang out this week because I have a lot of homework to catch up on,’ and Gil is fine with that. He understands and his mom understands.”

A Big needs to be able to spend 12 hours a month for a minimum of one year, Neidert said. If a student volunteer lives out of state in the summer, he or she has to be matched immediately upon arriving at school and is expected to e-mail and call during the summer months, she said.

“Basically, it’s what we felt would allow them to spend enough time with the child to build a good relationship,” Neidert said. “You’re with a kid a few hours a week. Who can’t do that?”

Volunteer Bigs are told they never have to spend any money, Wilson said. Instead, he tries to take advantage of free tickets that are donated, and then passed out to the Bigs on a first reply e-mail basis, he said.

“They happened to have free Cavs’ tickets and here they ended up having four of them, and I guess I was the only one to call,” Wilson said, recalling the day he took Gil to his first Cavaliers basketball game. “So me and my girlfriend and him and his friend, we all went, and it was really fun. Our seats were like what, 14 rows back?”

“It was awesome,” Gil said.

“What would you say to people my age?” Wilson asked Gil. “Do you think they should get involved?”

“Yeah,” Gil replied.

Contact social services reporter Tony Lange at [email protected].