Clay Griffiths, a fifth-grader at Guilford Elementary School, could see that his friend, Malik Davis, was enjoying himself. So, he asked school counselor Leslie Farmer if he could be part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, too.
"It looked like they had lots of fun," Clay said. "I wanted to have lots of fun."
Farmer told Clay not to get his hopes up. Malik had been with his mentor, Dennis W. Miller, for three years, but finding male volunteers to pair with pupils can be difficult, she said. Then Jimmy Mancusi showed up, and the match was made.
The two meet at Guilford for about an hour on Mondays and share lunch and recess. On nice days, they might go outside and play basketball. When it rains, they stay in and play games such as Uno and Guess Who, while talking about whatever crosses their mind.
This year, 17 pupils at Guilford and 10 at Deep Run have been paired with adults as part of the mentorship program, called Bigs in School.
That's a higher number than in past years, but still not enough for Jondahl Higgins, who coordinates the matches at the two Howard County elementary schools as part of her job as site program specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland. She would like to see 20 matches per school, she said.
Higgins has been recruiting volunteers from local companies, focusing on ones involved in the community, she said. Companies that are new to the program this year are Columbia Bank, Howard Bank and FSI Tax Corp., she said.
Mancusi works at FSI, which is a couple of miles from the school. "It's easy to do for an hour on my lunch break, and hopefully it makes a difference," he said.
On Monday, he ate an Italian cold cut sandwich in the fifth-grade pod while Clay picked at a serving of cafeteria lasagna, expressing revulsion that it contained broccoli. Mancusi agreed that it would be better without the vegetable.
Mancusi has three nieces, ages 5, 3 and 1, and his wife is expecting their first child, he said. He is relaxed and jovial with Clay, but he was nervous at first, he acknowledged. "I was hoping we'd get along," he said. "So far, we do."
Clay, an only child, said he likes sharing the time with Mancusi and does not mind missing recess with his friends.
Farmer said she selects pupils in grades 2 and up for the program based on her sense that they would benefit from adult attention. Some have parents who are divorced or busy, others are only children.
Just about every child she recommends says yes, she said. The program is helpful to teachers, she said, because kids who need extra attention are not as likely to demand it in the classroom if they have an adult they can turn to, she said. Also, the mentors often help with homework.
The volunteers like it, too. "It's a great way to meet some really nice kids that might need a positive role model," said volunteer Ava Foster, who works for General Growth Properties.
Many of the matches last several years. If the two want to continue the relationship after the youngster leaves elementary school, they can join the organization's community-based program.
Miller and Malik had been together since Malik was in second grade. "I think we both get something out of it," said Miller, owner of Miller Development and father to a 14-year-old and a 9-month-old.
He also said it's easy because "it's something we do during the work day. Everybody has to have lunch."
The two play Jenga, and Miller helps Malik with homework.
Miller said he has been to Malik's house, and Malik has been to his home. He has watched Malik play football and considers him "phenomenal." But he has been telling the fifth-grader that he needs to get good grades and go to college, in case football doesn't work out as a career.
Efforts are made to match children and mentors who have things in common. Patti Buckingham, who works at Patuxent Publishing, was matched with second-grader Jasmine Jefferson. Both like chocolate and animals and bananas, they agreed.
Asked if she liked being a little sister, Jasmine, 7, squirmed and said she did, but she seemed unable to give a reason. Finally, she said "I like it because she gave me a chip."
Buckingham, who is new to the program this year, said she has been happy with the experience. "She is adorable," she said of Jasmine, who prefers to be called Jazzy. "I thought I'd get kids that are really needy. My little girl is delightful. And smart as a whip."
In another room, Kim Hernandez was playing Guess Who with second-grader Ariel Johnson. Hernandez, who also works at FSI, said volunteering is easy because she can do it during her lunch break.
"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," she said. "We eat lunch together every Monday and play games and talk."
She seems particularly pleased with her match. "I have the best little sister in the entire school," she said.