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'Big' sibling bonding

An after school mentorship program hooks up kids with big brothers and sisters for two hours of quality time each week.

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002

SPRING HILL -- Van Van Fossen truly looks forward to Thursday afternoon visits with 8-year-old Matthew Plotner.

The moment he walks through the door at Spring Hill Elementary, his young friend scurries to greet him with a big hug. For the next two hours, they're the best of buddies. Together, they play games of catch, read books and challenge each other to tic-tac-toe. Sometimes they just sit and talk.

"I get a big kick out of seeing him smile and laugh," says the Spring Hill retiree. "Just knowing that he's having fun being with me makes it all worth while."

For the past two years Van Fossen has been active in the school's Big Brothers/Big Sisters after school mentorship program. The program is made up of 15 adult volunteers whose mission is to share quality time and become role models with youngsters who may lack adult interaction.

One day a week, the mentors, known as "Bigs," take part in providing structured group and one-on-one activities that include outdoor and indoor play, academic tutoring and homework help. Children chosen for the program are referred by teachers and guidance counselors.

"For a lot of kids, spending one-on-one time with an adult who takes an interest in them is a rare thing," said Patricia Cameron, director of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Hernando County. "Many of our kids come from single family homes where that kind of relationship isn't always possible. Our goal is to open up their life experiences and provide some positive interaction."

According to Cameron, mentors are matched with a child based on common interests such as sports and favorite activities. Ideally, boys are matched with men and girls with women. Though their only contact with each other is during the two-hour weekly session, it usually doesn't take long for close bonds to form.

Van Fossen recalls that his first meeting with Matt was tepid at best. The youngster's shyness and apprehension made for a lot of one-sided conversations. Eventually he began to coax out his young friend's enthusiasm by offering to throw a football with him.

"You have to remember that you're not here as a family member, but as a friend," said Van Fossen. "Some of them are going through rough times in their lives. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just be a good listener."

Much of the success of Spring Hill Elementary's mentorship program is due to a community partnership between the school and two neighborhood churches, Mariner United Methodist and Bayspring Presbyterian, from which the bulk of the program's volunteer help comes from.

"One of the reasons that we've been successful is that it's been a little easier to attract volunteers," said Big Brother/Big Sister's Hancy Haynie, who oversees the program at Spring Hill Elementary "By having the program on-site it's less of a commitment and more attractive to people whose time is limited."

Though they are new to the program, Ray and Eldeltraud Heddleson say they are thoroughly enjoying the experience of mentoring young people. Working with brothers Emanuel and Nick Powers has helped the couple gain a sympathetic view on how difficult growing up can be.

"It's sad to think that we even need to have a program like this," said Mrs. Heddleson. "But if my coming here helps one kid, then I think it's well worth my time. It's worth anyone's time."

With similar mentorship programs operating in several Hernando schools, Haynie says that finding volunteers, particularly men, is a constant challenge.

"We'd love to have this program in every elementary school, but you can only do what your resources allow you to do," said Haynie.

Nonetheless, Haynie hopes that as word of the program continues to spread, it will continue to attract new blood.

"I think the proof of how well the program works comes when you see how many people come back every year," said Haynie. "They come back because it's as fun for them as it is for the children."

For information on the Big Brothers/Big Sisters school mentorship program, call 684-7905.

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