LARGO — As a former police officer, Joseph Murray of Redington Shores knows how boredom and mischievousness can go hand in hand when it comes to children.
As a black man who grew up in New York City, 45-year-old Murray also knows how the inner city can come with its own slew of negative influences. Too often, he said, black male youths' view of the world is limited to what they see on the street corner, watch on television or hear in music.
So Murray jumped at the chance to volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County and potentially change a child's life.
For the past year, he's watched his 13-year-old "little brother" Reggie slowly come out of his shell, ask more questions and want to experience new things.
"I grew up in a big city environment and I know from experience that children are going to get a male role model. The only thing that's left is who's it going to be," Murray said.
"So, if it's not going to be someone like myself or someone positive with his best interests in mind, it's going to be someone on the street."
Big Brothers Big Sisters organizers say that's the idea behind their recent "100 Men in 100 Days" campaign to recruit male volunteers, and especially minorities in Pinellas, Citrus and Hernando counties.
The 100-year-old organization interviews, screens, then matches volunteers one-on-one with children who fit one of three criteria: Live in a single-parent home, come from a home with an incarcerated parent, or receive free or reduced-priced lunch at school.
In Pinellas County, about 56 percent of the roughly 1,100 children who are currently matched with volunteers are minorities, said spokeswoman Dena Brannen. They are served by about 1,000 volunteers, and at least 500 more children are on a list waiting to be matched.
"More than 74 percent of the children waiting for a 'Big' are boys," Brannen said. "But only 34 out of every 100 inquiries regarding becoming a volunteer come from men."
The disproportion alarms Chris Gattas of Dunedin, a small business owner who credits the program with helping shape him into the man he is today.
Gattas, 46, fondly recalls bonding with his "big brother" Larry Marechal over their mutual interest in sailing back in the 1970s.
The previously nonathletic Gattas made friends with the kids in Marechal's sailing classes.
But more important, Gattas — who had only occasional contact with his dad after his parents divorced — gained an ear for subjects that he couldn't share with his mother or sister. Gattas' big brother also helped him with school work and taught him "how to deal with my peers and other folks as a man," he said. Marechal was also a businessman who influenced Gattas' own decision to become an entrepreneur.
"He was just a good sounding board for me growing up," said Gattas, who now volunteers with the organization by speaking to corporations and other groups about sponsorship and volunteer opportunities.
One big misconception, says 25-year-old "big brother" Richard Danaie, is that volunteers are considered glorified babysitters.
Not so, says Danaie, who takes his 16-year-old "little brother" Dontavis bowling, to the movies or to professional sports games between two and five times a month.
Danaie, a St. Petersburg media sales representative who grew up in a single-parent home, says the program did well in matching him and Dontavis based on their similar backgrounds and interests.
And while Danaie says he can see the influence he has imparted on his little brother over the last four years, the experience has also changed him.
Danaie had to take a step back and recall what it was like to be a teenager. The experience, he says, has taught him patience and prepared him for fatherhood.
"Every single time I see him I'm doing all the checkups like drugs, sex, alcohol, grades, family life. I literally go through the checklist and weave it organically into our conversation," Danaie said.
He added: "He is literally like a little brother to me. He knows he can call me for anything at any time."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.