Big Brothers Big Sisters gives help and hope to youths

Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County brought two groups of youths to Lopez Lake near Arroyo Grande on two recent occasions.

In June, the organization and the county Parks and Recreation Department launched a pilot project in which big brothers and sisters brought their little brothers and sisters to fish, camp, ride boats and learn about nature.

“Littles,” as the youths are affectionately called, often come from single-parent homes, households where English is not spoken, or where a parent is ill or in prison and not able to provide one-on-one attention. These children, after having received needed attention and activities with a “Big,” are believed to be much more apt to stay in school, not join a gang, not use alcohol or drugs, or not become a teen parent. The positive influence the kids receive is immeasurable.

On July 28, Big Brothers Big Sisters, in support of a partnership with local colleges and the California Conservation Corps, brought youths to meet with Ranger Dan Chapman.

Each crew of 10 to 12 teenage boys was accompanied by a supervisor and a mentor. The program focused on career guidance, goals and interests. It hoped to help the lads find their particular spark, on which they might build a career, while introducing them to the outdoors and its wonders.

Ranger Dan took them on hikes and spoke about nature, wildlife and trail upkeep. On a boat ride, he talked to the kids about fossils, the lake and how it was formed.

Part of the program was to expose the Littles to possible career tracks. Ranger Dan shared about how he started as a volunteer and eventually went back to school to obtain the necessary credentials to become a park ranger.

“I liked learning how Ranger Dan turned his passion into a career,” one youth said.

Sarah Rudd-Lawlor, program director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, also began as a volunteer.

She had worked with children since age 15, including teaching preschool and after-school programs.

She saw an ad for Big Brothers Big Sisters, took the training, was matched with Angel of Arroyo Grande, and met him on his seventh birthday.

“You’re the best birthday present I’ve ever had,” he said.

“He touched my heart immediately,” she remarked.

They’ve been buddies ever since. The program works to match the “Big” to the “Little.”

Both Angel, now 11, and Rudd-Lawlor are athletic. She taught him how to surf, and they took golf lessons together, though “he’s far better at golf than I am,” Rudd-Lawlor said.

They ride bikes through the Huasna Valley, swim, play basketball and softball, and even cook together.

“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Rudd-Lawlor said. And now that she works full-time for the nonprofit group, “this is my fun.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters has three programs in the county.

The community-based program is the largest of its kind, matching adult role models and mentors with children ages 6 to 18 to spend six to eight hours per month together.

The school-based program, matching high school and college students with elementary students for activities, and the new Youth Career Exploration and Mentoring program, serves youth ages 15 to 19 attending alternative high schools.

Nipomo Elementary School has a school-based program and works with Nipomo High School, Nipomo’s LifeBound Leadership after-school program and local colleges.

Nipomo High offers community service credits for students who pair up with a little brother or sister. This program serves two children at once — the elementary student gets a Big to share activities with each week, and the high school or college student gets the pleasure of knowing they are helping a child to grow.

South County has 12 boys and girls now on the waiting list for a big brother or sister.

We have “rocking men in this county,” remarked Rudd-Lawlor, saying that San Luis Obispo County has a balance of 40 percent men to 60 percent women volunteers, a higher male contribution than across the country.

This is important, as there tends to be more boys in need of a Big than girls, because single-parent homes are usually headed by women.

To be a Big, a person needs to spend six to eight hours a month with a youth doing activities that they both enjoy.

There is an interview, then a short training. Bigs are trained in safety, sharing experiences and conflict resolution such as helping a child with sibling rivalry and playground issues such as bullying.

They encourage them to have manners and to just have fun together.

To donate or volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, contact Rudd-Lawlor at 781-3226, sarah@slobigs.org or visit www.slobigs.org.

South County Beat appears every other week. Anyone with story ideas involving interesting people in the South County can reach Gayle Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.