Over 100 children are waiting to be matched with a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor in Johnson

Mentor Ryan Gannon of Iowa City helps his “little brother,” Bentley McCauley, 8, unhook a fish from a line Tuesday during a fishing and kayaking trip for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Kent Park near Tiffin. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

A group of kayakers make their way to shore on Tuesday after paddling the lake for a Big Brothers Big Sisters outing at Kent Park near Tiffin. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Christian VandeLune, a medical student at the University of Iowa, was looking for a way to volunteer when he came across Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County.

VandeLune, who has six younger siblings, said he likes the role of “big brother” and felt he would be good at it. He was linked to Kingston Swayzer, 13, three years ago.

“It was really easy to get over that awkward phase of not knowing each other that well,” said VandeLune. “I didn’t know if we would have a ton in common, but I feel blessed to be compared to Kingston.”

VandeLune and Kingston enjoy fishing together and love being outside in the summer. VandeLune has taken Kingston to football and basketball games in Hawkeye and cheers for Kingston at his middle school games.

“Honestly, I didn’t think we were that close,” said VandeLune. “I haven’t thought about a commitment for a long time. It feels like he’s my little brother and a good friend.”

“I like having someone to talk to who isn’t part of your family,” Kingston said. “It means meeting a new person and making them a really good friend of yours. … I recommend the program to anyone struggling with school.”

The program is in dire need of more volunteers as over 100 children are on a waiting list to be matched with a ‘big one’. The waiting period can be a year or longer. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County asks for volunteers to volunteer for at least a year with a minimum of six hours a month.

According to Johnson County’s Big Brothers Big Sisters, researchers found that after 18 months of spending time with their “Bigs,” compared to children not participating in the program, the children:

  • 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs
  • 27 percent less likely to start drinking
  • 52 percent skip school less often
  • 37 percent less likely to skip class
  • And 33 percent less likely to meet someone

The researchers also found that “little ones” had more confidence in their performance on schoolwork and got along better with their families.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County currently oversees 125 games. About 80 percent of the “little ones” currently matched with a “big one” are children of color, said Dina Bishara, program outreach specialist.

The reason families come to Big Brothers Big Sisters is because “they all understand the benefit of having another positive relationship in their child’s life,” Bishara said. “It’s not about making up for something that’s missing, although many families have difficult histories of a parent who has died or been imprisoned.”

Each mentor or “big one” attends a 90-minute orientation training session, is supported by a mentoring specialist, and is invited to monthly activities with their “little ones” hosted by the program. Each week, Bishara sends an email to “Bigs” with free or low-cost events for the games to attend.

Mark Patton had one of the longest big-little matches in the Johnson County program. His little girl, who he met in second grade, graduated from Iowa City High School in May. Patton, 71, became involved with the program after his own three children had grown and left home.

Tyson Wirth, Director of Volunteer Growth and Success at Big Brothers Big Sisters, had a “little” in the program for three years. Though he and his “little one” Veron Tharrington, 14, are no longer a formal match, they continue to spend time together, Wirth said.

Wirth said being a “big guy” enriches his life in many ways, helping him be a better listener, being more empathetic and collaborative, and lowering his stress levels.

Kate Klefstad, 40, joined the program as “Big” almost a year ago. She was brought together with Lowan Amlanv, 14.

“They want every young person to have an adult in their life who accepts them exactly for who they are,” Klefstad said. “I love being that for Lowan.”

Klefstad, an associate director at UI Health Center, said she and some of her own children have queer identities. She can speak to Lowan, a transgender boy, “from a place of understanding” about what it’s like to be a young person with a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer identity, she said.

“It’s just a human-to-human connection,” Klefstad said. “Even if you have no experience working with young people, you can learn together.”

The first time a “big” meets a “little” is at a moderated match meeting. Klevstad met Lowan at his home with a mentoring specialist from the program. It was “very enjoyable” and both she and Lowan were asked lots of questions by the mentoring specialist to get to know each other.

Klefstad and Lowan spend a lot of time at Klefstad’s house, making dinner together, walking the dog, “simple things you could do with a friend,” Klefstad said.

Volunteers are required to complete a state and federal background check — fees for which Big Brothers Big Sisters can cover if necessary — a driver’s license check, at least four references, and their social media checked.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County is hosting a free play day on July 23 from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. for anyone interested in learning more about becoming a mentor. The event will be held at Diamond Dreams Baseball and Softball Academy, 2905 Stoner Ct. North Liberty, a 20,000 square foot indoor athletic facility with eight batting cages. Pork burgers, fries and drinks are provided.

Visit bbbsjc.org for more information.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

Mentor Brady Rolig of Iowa City looks on as his “little brother,” Shalon Dijangou, 13, snatches the bait at the end of his line while hanging out together during a Big Brothers Big Sisters outing at Kent Park near Tiffin on Tuesday fishes. The two spent time fishing together off the dock and caught several fish. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Iowa City mentor Brady Rolig holds up the fish his “little brother” Shalon Dijangou, 13, caught Tuesday to show him what the fish looks like in the sunlight at Kent Park near Tiffin. Brady is Shalon’s mentor at the Big Brothers Big Sisters in Johnson County. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Coralville’s mentor Kane Zemo punches his “little brother” Amari Morris, 11, after he kayaked around the lake at Kent Park near Tiffin on Tuesday. The two spent time together fishing and kayaking during an event for Big Brothers Big Sisters, which allowed them to spend time together while outside. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Leave a Comment