Young lives, big impact 'This works': The Big Brother, Big Sister program has helped many children from single-parent households, but many others are on a waiting list because of a shortage of volunteers.

March 14, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Twenty-eight years ago, Keith Christian's mother asked for a Big Brother for Keith, who had no father at home. In later years, the mothers of Milo Jaynes, Arnold Braxton, Quinton Grandy and Don Juan Jenkins also agonized over their young sons' futures and called for help.

They were lucky. One by one, their sons became Little Brothers to Big Brother Raymond M. Cain, a longtime Armco Steel Co. metalworker, now retired. For 28 years, as an exceptional friend, he has listened to the boys, taken them fishing and made a difference in their lives. At age 74, he is now a "Big" to his latest "Little," Don Jenkins, a City College freshman.

Thirty to 35 times a week, other mothers, counselors and therapists call Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Maryland Inc. to ask for older friends for their youngsters. The answer they get is not encouraging. The organization has 300 largely successful matchups between adults and children from single-parent homes, but 400 children are on the waiting list.

The imbalance is so acute that the group is reducing the number of children eligible, taking children ages 8 through 12 instead of 8 through 14.

It's a jigsaw puzzle with not enough pieces that fit. For effectiveness, Bigs and Littles are mostly paired by gender. Of the 400 waiting children, 81 percent are boys and 75 percent are black. Women volunteer more than men they make up 63 percent of volunteers but many more boys than girls need friends because more fathers are missing.

Waiting children outnumber incoming adult volunteers by more than 5-to-1. Of the 300 current matchups, 54 percent are male teams and 46 percent are female teams. Some children have to wait so long that they never get a Big Brother or Sister because they exceed the age of eligibility.

"It's very frustrating," said Robin A. Tomechko, the program's director, who hopes to hire a part-time recruiter to sign up more Bigs. "Volunteers make such a huge difference in the kids' lives, and it's rewarding for them, too." Strict screening

Volunteers go through rigorous screening, process, including criminal background checks by caseworkers. That partly accounts for the $1,800 cost to the organization of each matchup as it seeks to avoid the potential nightmare of abusive relationships.

4 The agency said its record shows no such cases.

Things don't always work out. One girl's matchup was postponed because she saw her mother slain and the trauma left her too deeply disturbed. Nevertheless, though they may take a little time to warm up, relationships usually succeed.

The mothers and occasional fathers who call for help have

common concerns: The child may have poor grades. Or fights with the parent. Or is disrespectful of teachers. Or is too close to drugs. Or has had a brush with the law. Or is withdrawn and has no friends.

One measure of hope is "While You Wait," a new program of periodic group activities the organization has begun for children on the waiting list.

Baltimore teams mirror the successes of matches nationwide, a new independent survey of 959 teen-agers, half of them Little Brothers and Sisters, has found. The study found that "Littles" were less involved with drugs and alcohol, did better in school and had better relationships with their peers than those not in the program, said Larry G. Rank, a former bank president who is executive director of the local organization.

"This works," he said. "The kids turn out better in many, many ways, better at school and staying away from crime. But it requires more male volunteers and more money." He said a recent bowling fund-raiser brought in about $50,000.

Little Brothers agree that the program works. Don Jenkins has been a good friend of Mr. Cain and his wife, Marjorie, for five years, eating at their home, going fishing and visiting Ames Memorial United Methodist Church, where Mr. Cain is a member and where Don has recited in public. His acting talent will be seen April 26 and 27 at City College in the lead role, Theseus, in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream."

"He is very motivating person," Don said of Mr. Cain. "It's his lifestyle. He is quiet, hard-working. He's a natural everything friend, brother, father, adviser."

When Don attended Harlem Park Middle School, Mr. Cain encouraged him in his studies.

"He stayed on me each quarter," Don said. "When I got good grades, he'd say, 'You got this far, now try to do even better.' Don finished middle school in June with an average of 98 and received 16 academic and other achievement awards, the most in Harlem Park's history.

"It didn't take long for the two to be friends," said Don's mother, Carolyn Jenkins. "Mr. Cain is so proud of Don's report cards and Don's wanting to be a neurosurgeon. I've told friends [but] their kids are on the waiting list."

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