[A DAD’S POINT-OF-VIEW] Lessons of a Big Brother and Mentor

One of the clichés about volunteerism is the fact that you often get more than you give. In my case, it was in ways and means I least expected. I’ve just become a Big Brother, again, to a 7-year-old boy and a Mentor to a 22-year-old young man. As these relationships are new, I don’t yet know what lessons I will learn. But, I know well the lessons I learned the first time around.

I became a Big Brother long before I was married or a parent. My life, at that time, was pretty heady. In my early 30’s, I had a successful showbiz career in which I was paid way too much for having so much fun, lived in a lovely home in a chic part of town, had two cars, and no one to worry about other than myself.

Fortunately, when I looked in the mirror and realized that reality, I began to search for something to do that wasn’t so self-centered. Quickly, I rejected the usual choices in entertainment. No industry favored charities and committees in which my role would be fund-raising, glad-handing, and networking among ourselves. A hands-on experience was my desire, one in which I could directly impact someone’s life. This is not intended to diss the big charities, whose purposes often are wonderful and helpful to many; it just wasn’t what I sought.

All my early jobs as a teen and young adult centered around working with kids–at camps, teaching tennis, being a lifeguard, park director. Learning about Big Brothers, I went to an orientation. What followed was a pretty thorough process of vetting. I was fingerprinted, interviewed privately and in groups, filled out various forms, and asked to provide several references. Only after 2-3 months was I approved and offered a “match” with a “little.”

This is where my expectations began. I am a guy who loves to play ball, literally and figuratively. I loved going to the movies and doing pretty much anything physical, wet or dry. Finally, every activity in my life usually involved food. You eat before or after, you stop for an ice cream, plus you must debate emphatically where to go to eat.

I was matched, as luck and maybe God decided, with an 8-year-old girl. In those days, they did match men with young girls because, after all, the need for a male adult figure is certainly the same for both genders. Sadly, due to legal fears, mixed gender matches are much fewer today.

My “little” was non-athletic, hated going to the movies, didn’t care to eat much, even ice cream and, when I met her, had a minor obsession with finding out or knowing who her father was, as she was the product of artificial insemination. There was no father in her life; no dead father, no dead-beat father, no abusive father, no father, period. For the first couple of years I knew her, this plagued her.

I had to learn to accept that her interests were not mine and try to find some kind of common ground. It wasn’t easy, but the irony was this extra effort and challenge ultimately proved to be the lesson I received before I became a parent. Eventually, we did find common ground. Often, it was just a matter of taking turns, doing what the other wanted on alternate outings. But, mostly, we learned to talk to one another. I became her confidant.

Over time, she opened up about her life in a way she wasn’t comfortable doing with her mother. She told me about school problems, shared with me a substance issue she developed, and also took me through a personal journey of sexual identity that confused her much of her teen years.

She turned out to be my prep course for being a parent. What a gift; what a surprise. When I did get married and was blessed with two boys, I had similar expectations of them that I had of my little sister. They’d like the things I did and, of course, being my biological offspring, have many of my skills and traits. Uh-Uh.

Neither boy had any interest in sports. My youngest was a vegetarian till he was about 10 and their interest in food was pretty much limited to pizza. If a movie were older than they were, or heaven forbid, in black and white, they wouldn’t give it a try. Yup, they were much like my little. They were their own individuals.

While I still did my best to introduce any and every sport to my boys, I more easily accepted that they weren’t me. One was musical and the other artistic, and it was very clear neither would support me via a professional sports career in major league baseball, the NFL, or the NBA. I lightened up quicker and easier on my expectations, was much less disappointed that they didn’t share my loves and interests, and could better embrace and support their passions, all due to my lessons as a Big Brother.

What I will learn from my two new matches remains to be seen. I know, from the 22-year-old, who has been sick since birth with a neurological disorder in which few live past 30, that I come home after each visit thanking God for my family’s good fortune and health. My seven year old “little” reminds me of the joy of being a little boy. Call this column an advocacy for volunteering. It is and you will be rewarded and be a better parent. I promise.

Learn more about becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister at http://www.bbbs.org. Image credit: Steve Woods

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