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GO KIDS Articles

Big ‘siblings’ give children a role model

By Rick Smith, Staff Writer
© San Angelo Standard Times
August 12, /2007

You’re a school-age child. Your father or mother or another close relative is in prison or jail.

You need a little help. You need a friend.

Where do you go? Who can help?

Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Angelo has an answer: a Mentoring program for the children of prisoners.

“It gives them a friend, another person who cares for them,” Janet Ardoyno told me. Janet is chief executive officer for the West Central Texas region of Big Brothers Big Sisters. The region includes San Angelo and Abilene.

The children of prisoners program helped about 200 San Angelo boys and girls in 2006, Janet said.

She said her group is hoping to increase that number this year. It will enroll children in the program through Sept. 30.

“There are so many children with one parent — or both parents — in prison, and they have no one,” Janet said.

She told me about a 9-year-old San Angelo boy who lived with his great-grandmother. "She was 80 years old and raising him because his grandmother was not able to, his mother was in prison and nobody knew where his father was,” Janet said.

The program matched the boy with a mentor, a “Big Brother,” who helped him cope with his problems. The boy had “an extreme fear of what would happen to him when his great-grandmother died,” Janet explained. The mentor helped ease his anxiety. The boy’s grades improved. His behavior in school got better. And, in April, when the boy’s great-grandmother did die, the first person he called was his Big Brother.

“Mentoring has a big effect on children,” Janet said. "It introduces them to new opportunities. They learn that, ‘Yes, you can graduate high school. Yes, you can go to college.’ “

She said students who have mentors are less likely to turn to alcohol, drugs or violence. Their grades go up and they are more likely to stay in school. She said there are fewer incidents of early parenting among mentored students.

Mentoring is also an opportunity for the child “to just have a friend,” she said. “These kids don’t always have an opportunity to be around people who really care about them.”

Or have fun with them.

Many of the children in the program are raised by grandparents who may not have the time — or energy — to do some of the “fun things” with the children, Janet said.

“There are children living in this community who have never been to a movie,” she said. “They never get out of their home. I don’t think people realize how many San Angelo children have terrific needs.”

Mentors help, Janet said.

It doesn’t take a lot of time and it doesn’t cost anything, she said. And you don’t have to be a child psychologist. Big Brothers Big Sisters staff members train mentors and continue to work with the mentor and child after the training ends.

Male mentors are in short supply, she said.

“We have more little boys in the program, and many are being raised by single moms, so they have no male role model.”

She said men may be hesitant to volunteer because they can’t imagine how to spend time with a child.

“I tell them, ‘Go have lunch. Tell a few good knock-knock jokes. Play a video game. Hang out in the community. Build a model airplane. Have fun.’

“We’re not asking them to be experts on children,” she said. “We’re just asking them to care.”

How to get or give help

Who: Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Angelo.
What: A special mentoring program to help children ages 5 to 15 who have a parent or close relative in prison or jail.
When: The enrollment period for the children ends Sept. 30.
Cost: Free.
What else: Volunteers, high school age and older, are also needed to mentor the children.
Information: bbbstx.org or (325) 486-2200.