Kenny King easily recalls the first time he met Lonnie Hawkins, the man the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County selected to be his "big.''
It was back in 1975. Hawkins drove up to King's house in a white Cordoba with a maroon roof.
"I was 6 or 7, and he drove me to McDonald's,'' recalled King, 44. "I had a Big Mac, a large order of french fries and a chocolate shake.''
Hawkins, the co-founder of Hawkins Construction of Tarpon Springs, also remembers their first meeting.
"When I first met Kenny he was a tow-headed little boy who was scared of his own shadow,'' said Hawkins, 63.
Fast-forward through the years. Hawkins, who recently received a lifetime achievement award from Big Brothers Big Sisters, has spent countless hours with King.
The relationship started because Hawkins agreed to be King's mentor since King's father wasn't a part of the boy's life. Over time, however, the pair developed such a close bond that Hawkins now considers King a son, and King's children his grandchildren.''
Because there are hundreds of boys in Pinellas County in need of male mentors, this summer, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County is holding its "100 Men in 100 Days" campaign. When King is asked if he thinks such a campaign is useful, he immediately answers, "Big Brothers Big Sisters can change a life."
"It changed mine.''
When King was in elementary school, Hawkins taught him how to fish and play sports.
As a teenager, Hawkins taught him how to critique Gator football games, navigate the waters of Tampa Bay by boat. He taught him how to use the tools in his home workshop, planting the seeds for King's future career in the construction industry.
"I am the man I am today because of Lonnie and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, no doubt,'' said King, who now works in contract administration and estimating for Hawkins Construction.
The decision for King to become a little brother in the program was made by his mother, who died when King was 20.
"Mom wanted to spend all her free time with me and my two sisters, so she didn't date,'' King said. "I remember she called me to the table after dinner one night and told me I needed more than a female's viewpoint in life. She wanted me to have time with a grown-up guy, a male role model. When you're 6 or 7, you don't realize certain things, but now looking back on it, I see how right she was.''
According to King, if it weren't for all the shared experiences he had with Hawkins, he would have never dared to do certain things.
"I probably never would have played sports, and Lonnie taught me things like how to use a drill, a drill press, a table saw, a radial arm saw. I never heard of any of those until I went to his shop. By the time I was 18, it was entrenched that Lonnie was my father figure,'' recalled King, who now has four daughters and a son of his own. They range in ages from 4 to 10.
Susan Ralston, chief executive officer for the organization, says the campaign, in its second year, is necessary because the waiting list is unbalanced. "Typically, the waiting list is two-thirds boys and one-third girls, and more times than not, the people that call us to volunteer will be women and not men.''
And although Ralston doesn't expect every man who signs up to forge the same type of long-term relationship as Hawkins did with King, she is hoping "we get more adult males to sign up. The minimum requirement is simply two visits with the little brother each month. We are looking for men willing to become a friend, who can add more potential to a child living in adversity.''
Hawkins remembers that he decided to sign up for the program because he watched a friend volunteering his time. "He was a business associate, and a busy man. I felt like it was time for me to start giving back, too, and if he could do it, I could do it.''
But Hawkins says King was not the only one who benefitted from the relationship. He benefitted, too.
"Actually, because of the success my wife and I experienced with Kenny, we adopted three birth siblings into our family. At the time they were 4, 5 and 6 — Richard, Steve and Dawn,'' he said.
And in 2009, Hawkins and his wife, who divide their time between a home in Indian Rocks Beach and a home in Colorado, decided to do it all over again. "We decided to become a Big Couple. We spend time with two little boys who are brothers. We're doing the same things we did all those years ago with Kenny. We think it's important.''
When Hawkins thinks back on how he watched King change from being a shy little towheaded boy into a confident young man, he says the change didn't come in "a light bulb moment.''
"It happened over time. I think it took continued involvement in his life for me to draw him out of that shell.''
Piper Castillo is reachable at email@example.com or (727) 445-4163.