TAMPA — Music blared over the speakers at the Pin Chasers Midtown bowling alley as hundreds of Big Brothers and Big Sisters bonded with their littles.
But in an enclosed room to the side, a quieter exchange was taking place Sunday afternoon.
More than 40 years had passed since Christopher Allen met Harry McAlister, the man he credits with helping him turn his life around.
Allen, a high school student back then, had been arrested for stealing and spent time in jail. A judge recommended he take part in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
And there, he met McAlister.
McAlister, a communications officer for the U.S. Air Force, had already mentored other boys through the program, including one who wound up as best man in McAlister's wedding.
Their time together was brief, consisting mostly of motorcycle rides and trips to the park. But the impact changed the trajectory of Allen's life.
Allen, who said his father was a mostly absent figure, couldn't imagine a life of success ahead of him. McAlister changed that, helping the youth put faith in himself and his future.
McAlister's knowledge of electronics piqued Allen's interest. Maybe, he thought, there was something in that field for him.
With McAlister's guidance and with financial help from the government and his mother, Allen enrolled in electronics courses at Tampa Technical Institute. Within two years, he landed a job that had him building computers for the Pentagon.
"His initial investment in my life was what changed my life forever," said Allen, now 59, from Temple Terrace.
After seeing an advertisement for Big Brothers Big Sisters on TV during the Super Bowl, Allen did a little investigative work and started calling all the McAlisters in the area.
A week later, he got a call back. He had found his Big Brother.
As the two sat together for the first time in decades, McAlister told stories about Allen sneaking away and trying on McAlister's contact lenses and commandeering a pair of boots McAlister brought back from Turkey.
"I hope those stories aren't embarrassing for you," joked McAlister, now 70, from Town 'N Country.
Shortly after the two sat down together Sunday, McAlister pulled out the card he received when Big Brothers assigned Allen as his little brother. He had tucked it away with the cards from the six other boys he mentored, and kept them in a keepsake box in his home.
"I can't wait to get my first card," Allen said when he saw it.
Reconnecting with McAlister was the first step. Now Allen hopes to influence the life of another young boy. He handed a donation and his completed Big Brother application form to one of the organization's leaders.
"All of these things made a difference in my life," Allen said. "If you invest a little time in these kids, you can make a big difference in their lives."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at (813) 661-2443 or [email protected]