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Mentors a "big' help at school

On Mondays when Perry Lopez leaves his job as a public works construction manager for the city of Clearwater, he doesn't go straight home.

Instead he heads to Belleair Elementary School to meet with his "little brother," 10-year-old Airic Briggs.

Lopez, 44, is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County. For the past four years, the organization has provided one-on-one mentoring at after school programs in conjunction with YMCA of the Suncoast and R'Club.

This August the school began a new in-school mentoring program.

"For the first time this year, we are in schools during the day," said Jean Kingsbury, director of schoolbased programming for BBBS. "It's a brand new partnership with the school system."

The in-school mentoring is available at four Pinellas elementary schools: Belleair, Lakewood, Pinellas Central and Sawgrass Lakes. BBBS also implemented the program in four Hernando County schools.

"We are very excited to have this new opportunity that will allow us to dramatically expand the number of children who will benefit," Kingsbury said.

As the BBBS match manager for Belleair and Pinellas Central schools, Stefanie McQuade interviews children and volunteers and makes the initial pairings. She reviews students' report cards to see what areas might need special attention. Children are referred to the program by school officials and child care workers. There is no cost to the child.

"Our mentors work on academic needs as well as behavior and social skills, particularly building self-esteem." McQuade said. "I'm excited about this. I see firsthand the difference that the program can make in the child's life."

Volunteers with the in-school program generally meet with their little brother or sister during the child's lunch hour, so as not to disrupt classes.

"It's wonderful to have a mentor for children who need that extra attention," Belleair principal Marcia Gibbs said.

This is Lopez's third year as a big brother. His job allows him to leave an hour early one day a week to volunteer.

"I've always done a lot of volunteer work my whole life," he said. "I like to give back. It's very rewarding to be important in someone's life."

Lopez has been meeting with Airic since last year. Together they work on homework, play catch football or just talk. Airic, who lives in Dunedin with his mother and brother, asked BBBS to place him with Lopez again after summer break.

"He helps me with my homework, especially math," Airic said, patting Lopez affectionately on the shoulder. "My math grade went from a B to an A."

"We are very much seeking male mentors," McQuade said. "Many boys on our waiting list have no other male influence in their lives." There are 40 to 50 children on the waiting list countywide, she said.

Volunteers need to be at least 16 years old, have a valid driver's license, undergo a background check and attend an orientation meeting. In-school mentors receive additional training through the school system.

"Much of city and county government and large corporations allow their employees to get off work an hour early as part of Jeb Bush's initiative for mentoring," Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury said the program has 70 volunteers for the school-based programs, but hopes to have about 200 before the end of the school year.

Ryan Myrick, site director for the YMCA's before- and after-school child care program at Belleair, said the individual attention that BBBS volunteers provide is very valuable.

"The ratio of students to group leaders is 25 to 1 in our program. For a child to get a chance to work in a one-on-one environment makes a huge difference," he said. About 25 percent of the student enrollment at Belleair, or 135 children, participate in the YWCA program, he said.

Nohealani March, 17, and a senior at Seminole High, needed to fulfill volunteer hours for the state Bright Futures scholarship program. "The first place I contacted was Big Sisters," she said. March has been mentoring her "little sister," Jasmin Medina, since January. Jasmin, 10, is a fifth-grader at Belleair.

"At home I'm the big sister," said Jasmin, who has two younger siblings. "Nohealani is very nice, funny. She's like a friend of my own."

Maria Wilson, a router dispatch clerk at Verizon, is a new volunteer with BBBS. She has been matched with Kierstin Berrian, a fifth-grader at Belleair.

Because of all the recent weather-related school closings, they have only met twice, but Wilson said they've already formed a bond.

"I almost think I'm getting more out of (this) than she does," Wilson said. "I think about her a lot during the week, what would be good for her, what I can do to help make her a better person."

FYI

For more information about Big Brother Big Sisters call (727) 518-8860 or go to www.bbbspc.org

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