Big Brothers Big Sisters is the oldest one-on-one mentoring organization in the United States. For over a century, it has been connecting adults with children who need positive role models in their lives. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Big Brothers Big Sisters has succeeded in serving a growing number of at risk children. However, the program is having difficulty recruiting enough men to be big brothers.
"What is the subject you're looking forward to the most this year?," Dana asks her little sister Angel.
"Gym? and music? art," Angel says
"What are we going to have to work on this year, you think?" Dana asks
"Math and reading," Angel replys.
More than two years ago, Dana Smith volunteered to mentor a child through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Milwaukee. She was matched with Angel Hampton, 9.
"I work full time. I'm single," Dana Smith says. "I stay very busy during the week. But one day a week, I pick her up after school. We go to the grocery store, make dinner. Or we go to Barnes and Noble and pick out a book. We go shopping. We've done everything from laundry to Great American roller coasters."
No matter what they do, Angel says, she is always excited about their weekly outings. "I have a lot of fun," she adds. "We go to the park. We go to the church. We walk the dog."
Through such activities, Smith has learned a lot about Angel.
"Angel is very energetic," she says. "She is the best dancer. She sings. She jumps rope amazingly. She has this outgoing personality when you see her at school with her friends. She is a leader."
For her part, Angel appreciates having Dana Smith in her life.
"She is really like my big sister because when I have problems, I'll go to Dana and talk to her," Angel says
Realtor Garrett Kucifer and Blake Marlowe, 13, were also matched through the same organization. They have done a lot of activities together, including a trip to the museum a few weeks ago.
"One of the most fun things we've done is we flew kites over Lake Michigan," Kucifer says.
"We just do a whole bunch of stuff," Marlowe says. "He is one of my best friends. It's pretty cool. I really haven't had a friend this long."
Blake's mother signed him up for Big Brothers Big Sisters, because she was a single parent and felt he needed a male role model in his life.
"He gives me advice about school and how I should be acting [behaving]," Marlowe says. "He has really been the male presence [in my life] because my father hasn't been around for my whole life. So he's really been there for me, giving me support."
Blake is one of 2800 children matched with a big brother or sister this year, by the Metro Milwaukee chapter. Its president India McCanse says the supportive and dependable relationships with adult volunteers help youngsters develop confidence and self-esteem.
"It's literally nothing short of transformation," she says. "We see kids who do better at school. They do better at home. They improve relationships with authority figures. They cut down on prevention kinds of issues, risk issues like drugs, alcohol and pregnancy, those sorts of things. Most of all, they are doing better inside their own skin [becoming more comfortable with themselves]."
The adults, like Robert Klus, 29, also find the relationship rewarding. Klus was matched to an 11-year-old little brother two years ago.
"I probably get just as much out of it as he does," he says. "He has really become a part of our family. He spends a lot of time going with us, doing errands or running trips. So he's become a family member and a very close friend to not only me, but my girlfriend and the rest of my family."
Klus says he works full time, owns a house and has other responsibilities, but chose to take this responsibility as a "big brother" on as well. "My hope is that this relationship that started two years ago will continue for the rest of, at least, my life."
Recruiting committed big brothers like Klus, says India McCanse, is one of her group's biggest challenges.
"We have 62,000 children considered at risk," McCanse says. "There are so many boys that are waiting. We have more moms that call us up and say, 'I need a strong figure or a friend for my son. I need him to have a male role model.' We need more and more men that would step forward and say, 'You know what, I can spend an hour a week with a young man. For a very small investment of time, I can do this.'"
McCanse suggests "making a long term commitment in terms of volunteering [may be] more difficult for a guy."
To encourage more men to become big brothers, McCanse spends a lot of time explaining to potential volunteers what this mentoring program is all about. She stresses it's not about being a parent or a disciplinarian. The need is for caring adults who are willing to invest a few hours a week, be a positive role model and have a profound and lasting impact on a child's life.