Looking after Little Pals
By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Jamie Floyd passed by a bulletin board at the Dunedin Public Library a little more than a year ago when a flier for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County caught her eye.
She ripped off a tab on the bottom of the flier, which listed a phone number and gave the organization a call.
She went to orientation a couple weeks later.
"At the meeting, they were talking about all the kids on the waiting list to get a big (brother or sister). If there are kids who want to have a "big' (brother or sister), it's just a matter of making that connection and making it happen." Floyd, 17, said.
Then she thought of a way to make that connection.
She decided to start a Big Brothers Big Sisters club at her school, Palm Harbor University High.
A couple faculty members didn't have faith she could pull it off, Floyd said. But teacher Malla Kolhoff did and was eager to be the club sponsor.
Floyd got to work on a club proposal, and within a month administrators gave her the green light. By spring 2001, Floyd set up a club orientation and established the first Big Brothers Big Sisters club at a high school in Pinellas County.
Now, the club meets twice a month. Their chief activities are parties for Little Pals, boys and girls 5 to 12 who don't have big brothers or big sisters yet. The events aim to keep the kids' spirits up while they wait.
"We never have enough "bigs,' so there are always kids waiting," said Mike Lazala, a mentor manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Currently there are about 120 on the waiting list, said Karen Ogden, partnership coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Recently the club held its second party, a belated New Year's Eve bash for 15 Little Pals, complete with party hats, streamers, noisemakers and ear-piercing horns. They pumped up the volume with tunes from Britney Spears, 'N Sync and 98 Degrees.
The bash brimmed with children's favorites like Twister, musical chairs and the hot potato game. Throughout the night, kids popped by the face-painting table to sport designs like butterflies, stars and footballs. And Bingo, for some reason, was the hit of the night.
With funds from a car wash, the students put together a buffet of peanut butter cups, tortilla chips, candy bars and pizza.
Several Little Pals expressed basic reasons why they wanted a big brother or sister. They want to have fun and go neat places, most said.
Spirited Christopher Vinachi, 9, has his mother in mind too. He wants a big brother "so mom can have a break and somebody can drive me to school and pick me up and play with me and help me on my homework," he said.
The students at Palm Harbor University High have their own reasons for getting involved.
"I needed volunteer hours and this seemed like the most fun I could have getting volunteer hours," said sophomore Brendan Ballard, 16.
To get International Baccalaureate diplomas at Palm Harbor University High, freshman and sophomores must have at least 50 community service hours, juniors and seniors must have 200 more, Kolhoff said. And for Bright Futures Scholarships, students need 75 hours of service.
Senior Sayre Froelich, 17, said she joined the club to bring some fun into a little girl's life and be her friend. She said she was surprised how quickly she and her little sister hit it off. "It didn't really need any adjusting time," she said.
Floyd's relationship with her little sister, Yazmen Watkins, 9, benefits both of them, she said.
"I'm experiencing different horizons that most people wouldn't have a chance to," she said. And for the kids, she said, "They can can see good qualities in a person and have someone to express themselves to."
A couple students are mentors at after-school programs. Senior Rachel Solomon, 17, club vice president, mentors at Palm Harbor Elementary School. The commitment is one hour a week and ends with the school year. That way she won't feel guilty when she leaves for college, she said.
At the party, Debra McIntosh kept an eye on her 7-year-old son, Shawn. She said she wants to find a positive male influence for him. His father, her ex-husband, is in prison, and doesn't fit the bill, she said.
"It's basically for him to be one-on-one with a male role model. I'm always there for him, but I'm his mom. He wants a big brother so bad."
Cornelius and Mary Plunkett want more quality time with their daughters, but lately that's been difficult. Cornelius has been working extra hours and Mary has been making three trips to the hospital each week for dialysis treatments. For now, the couple can't expose the girls to all of the activities they'd like. They hope big sisters could give them a hand.
Lakeisha Henderson, a single parent, said she can't wait to find mentors for her son and daughter. "I just look forward to them getting a match. I wish more people would volunteer their time and see what this is all about," she said.
-- To find out more about getting involved, call Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County at (727) 518-8860.
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