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Big Brothers Big Sisters work to change lives of local youths

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Not long after Dee Rumbaugh became executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters, she listened to a voicemail message left by a child who had called after office hours.

The boy said his grandmother needed to talk to her. He left specific instructions when to call her.

"Five times he gave me the number," Rumbaugh recently recalled. "At the end he said, 'And you had better call.' It was almost like a threat."

When she did call, Rumbaugh said, "The grandmother hadn't a clue that he had called Big Brothers Big Sisters. Apparently, he saw something about the program and decided he wanted a Big Brother."  

Rumbaugh learned that the youth lived with his grandmother who worked seven days a week as manager of a convenience store. His mother was incarcerated, and his father had remarried and had another family. The boy was in an alternative school.

He was matched with a young lawyer. Although they skateboard and do other activities together, "their favorite thing to do is gardening," said Rumbaugh, adding that the boy is no longer attending an alternative school.

 "Changing one life at a time, that's what we do," said Rumbaugh, who's been on the job for a year.  

During 2012, 75 youths were enrolled in either the community or school-based Big Brother Big Sister programs in Kanawha and Putnam counties.

The group connects at-risk children with adult volunteers, who mentor the child on a one-on-one basis. The national group is nearly 100 years old, but Charleston didn't get a chapter until 90 years later.

Glenn English, then an investment officer, is credited with being the founder.

Growing up, he explained in a 1994 Gazette article, "a number of friends in my neighborhood recognized that I didn't have a father. The fathers didn't mind sharing their time and my friends didn't mind sharing their fathers. That meant a lot to me."

He contacted the national organization about the same time as Annette Castelle, and a committee was formed to establish a local chapter. The next summer, the first Myrtle Beach Dinner and Dance was held as a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

In 1997, the first match was made between a Big Brother, referred to as bigs, and a Little Brother, called littles in the lingo of the nonprofit.  

Rumbaugh said English is still involved with the program, helping with last month's bowling tournament to raise funds and serving in the ambassador program. Ambassadors, she said, are former and current mentors or other people in the community who speak on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters at clubs, church functions or just to their friends.     

Children are referred to the program by school counselors and social workers. But parents and guardians of children who are or have been in the program provide the most referrals, Rumbaugh said. "They find people who they think can benefit."

Currently, there are 46 youths in the program and most are community-based, meaning that their mentors meet with them for three or four hours every two weeks. For those who can't invest that much time, mentors spend an hour a week with the child at school or at an after school program.

"Our goal is to have a bank of bigs. We don't want kids on a waitlist," said Rumbaugh. "Right now we are at a better place than we've been for at least three years. We have two more bigs than kids. I want 20 more bigs so we can really promote and bring in littles." 

"Bigs" must be at least 18 and agree to background checks and other requirements.

Former Charleston policeman Duke Jordan is on the Big Brothers Big Sisters board, and he is spearheading an effort to find mentors for youth who have been involved with the juvenile justice system.   

It's believed that some of those youths would benefit significantly by having a mentor -- a role model. For instance, Rumbaugh said a mentor was found for one boy who had been kicked out of school. He vowed to be picked as student of the week at his high school, and last month he was, Rumbaugh said.   

"We're expanding to include more children at a higher risk because of the need," she said.

To learn more about becoming a mentor or volunteer or to refer a child, call the Big Brothers Big Sisters office at 304-746-7900.

Reach Rosalie Earle@earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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