Sunday, February 18, 2018
Opinion

Column: Help kids by being a mentor

The words and images fill our local news pages, our television airwaves and our mobile devices. Teenagers — children — stealing cars, dying in the streets, hooked on drugs. Locked up and left out.

We are bombarded with reports of failing schools, deadbeat dads and children forced into foster care. And the national headlines aren't much better.

So you put down the paper, or turn off the TV, or log off your tablet and shake your head: "What are they going to do to stop all this?"

Here's the better question: What are you going to do to stop all this?

Those of us in the business of helping children were not surprised to read the outcome of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist's recent meeting with a group of kids from the Midtown neighborhood. Their conclusion was simple, and a call to arms: The teens needed — wanted — mentors to guide them and positive role models to follow.

There is no secret to this sauce. Provide a child early in life with a trusting, caring adult and the impact will be profound. We know. At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, whose sole mission is to provide mentors to children facing adversity in our seven-county region, 98 percent of the kids who had been in our program for at least a year had no involvement in the juvenile justice system (even though many of our youth grow up in neighborhoods with the highest number of juvenile arrests). And 98 percent were promoted to the next grade level. School attendance goes up, negative behaviors go down and, perhaps most important, we see happier kids.

Mentoring is not that hard. The most important quality is consistency. Whether it's an hour a week in a school, or a couple of visits a month out in the community program, just be there. Become that adult they can trust, who is there as a friend — not a parent, or tutor or disciplinarian. And because you want to be, not because you're being paid to be. To some kids, that's important.

And second, you will get every bit as much from the relationship and experience as your Little. Wait until you see the look on your Little Brother's face when, in unison, the entire class announces, "Your Big Brother is here!"

We recently launched our annual "100 Men in 100 Days" campaign, designed to encourage men to become Big Brothers. We need to target men because, of the hundreds of children on our waiting lists, approximately 70 percent are boys looking for a male role model. On average, however, 70 percent of our volunteers are women.

You can change the course of a child's life in less time each month than it takes for a round of golf. Think about that the next time you're standing on the first tee. We're asking you to take a kid to a ball game, or the beach, or a museum. Take them to your favorite restaurant, and let them take you to theirs. Help them with their homework, then let them crush you in a video game.

And while you're together, talk about life. Ask them what made them happy that week, or what made them sad. Ask them what they did nice for someone else. Listen to what they say, and then share your wisdom. Soon they will tell you things they would never tell their parents or teachers. You will become a trusted friend.

The first time I met my current Little Brother, I asked him that if he could go anywhere in the world, where would he go. He told me, "Church, because we don't have enough gas to get to church."

I gave him a hug, and a friendship was born. Two years later, we're still going strong.

So next time you wonder what the world is coming to, remember this: "They" are not the solution. "You" are the solution.

Be Big.

Jack Sheppard is the managing director of marketing and partnership development for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay. He can be reached at [email protected]

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