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Instead of going out to mark his 24th birthday tonight, Juneau resident Cody Bennett plans to celebrate being a former "little."
In the world of Big Brothers Big Sisters, which tonight will celebrate 25 years of matching Juneau kids with adult role models, the kids are referred to as "littles." Bennett said he can't imagine what his life would be like if he hadn't had bigs, most notably a couple named Bill and Sharon. They remain his good friends six years after he grew out of the program.
"We just find adults who can be safe with children and be their friend," said Marc Wheeler, executive director for BBBS of Southeast Alaska. In addition to kids, 6 to 18, from single-parent families, there are young people living with other family members, such as aunts or grandparents. There are children from foster homes and others with a parent incarcerated. A school mentoring program has adults working with kids in kindergarten through eighth grade.
The national program is marking its 100th anniversary. Its goal is 450 matches this year in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Hoonah, Haines and Skagway. Wheeler said they are also looking for matches in Metlakatla.
"We try to keep the families involved," he said. There are monthly family group activities that not only include the bigs and littles, but children on the waiting list to be littles.
BBBS Southeast Alaska Associate Director Amber Richard said it's unfortunate that the list is not so little.
"We probably get 10 to 15 inquiries a week from parents and teachers," she said.
Stephanie Buss, the local organization's board president, said her husband was a big before she "married into the program." After seven years, with a little who has grown from 7 to 14, she said she has taken more out of it than she expected.
"Sometimes I think we get more out of it," she said. "We get to be kids for a while. We do kid things. We have fun."
Tony Newman, the program's executive director in Juneau from about 1996 to 2001, said he has seen the importance of BBBS here. "It knits together this community like no other organization I know. It involves people in each other's lives."
People from different ethnic groups and economic backgrounds come together, making "our community a warmer place," he said.
Single parent Sara Brickey said she tried to get her son into the program when they lived in Michigan. After she came to Juneau, she was happy it only took six months. She said it make a big difference with her son.
"He loves Russ," she said, of her son's big. She described him as more than "someone he can talk to. He is so willing to help me out." Her son's big has become part of their extended family.
When her son got all A's on his report card, he called Russ to share the news, she said.
In his current job in the juvenile justice system, Newman said he continues to see how the friendship of an adult helps "kids in trouble and troubled kids."
The national organization has compiled studies that show their littles are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs and 52 percent less likely to skip school, as well as having more confidence in school and better relationships with their families.
Wheeler and Richard said interviews try to match bigs and littles with interests. Background checks on the adult volunteers include criminal background checks and at least three references for each applicant. After bigs and littles are matched, the relationships are monitored.
"It's funny to look back at all the times we've shared and realize that it's not the amount of time spent, not the number of outings that we've had that made the biggest impact," Bennett said in a speech at another organization event in March. "One of the best memories during our official match was a time where we had made dinner, popped in a movie, sat down to watch and promptly fell asleep.
From his bigs, Bennett learned the importance of friendship, he said.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.