Until last summer, 17-year-old Thomas had to be the man around the house to his five siblings while also attending classes at the Construction Careers Center and trying to figure out how he would ever get into college.
“I’m the oldest of six kids and it’s hard,” Thomas said. “My mom works all the time, and I’ve got to be like their parent.”
But in June 2010, he met Mark Winschel, a project manager for S.M. Wilson & Co. and a volunteer mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. Winschel was paired with Thomas, and they’ve been building a close friendship ever since.
They meet at the CCC once a month and then get together outside of school for outings such as lunch, a Rams game, golfing—and a big one for Thomas—his first Cardinals game.
“It was really cool, and I don’t even like sports that much,” Thomas said.
“Next I want to go to hear Chris Brown. I might not be going to school the next day,” Thomas said, goading Winschel with a sly smile.
“Nuh uh,” Winschel shot back, grinning. “That’s not part of the deal.”
One of the many roles that “Bigs” play in “Littles’” lives is to help guide them in making good decisions like staying in school, avoiding drugs or crime, and getting good grades. The agency’s ABC Education Initiative has a proven record of improving Littles’ attendance, behavior and classroom success, said Becky James-Hatter, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters. The real power comes through sharing information and offering caring guidance from all the people most important in the Littles’ lives—parents, Bigs, school and agency staff.
But there is a critical shortage of mentors for children who want and need them.
“We have more than 1,000 children waiting for a Big Brother or Big Sister. And for many of these children, the encouragement provided by a Big is not a luxury—it is a necessity,” James-Hatter said.
Winschel has been helping Thomas set goals for earning better grades (he’s up to nearly straight A’s now), perfect attendance and getting a higher ACT score.
“He’s No. 1 in his class,” Winschel said. “He’s got all the potential in the world.”
Winschel urges anyone who is interested in becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister to do it. He believes being a Big makes a dramatic difference in each child’s life—and for such a little bit of time invested.
“It’s not a huge time commitment, and you don’t have to dream up some fantastic thing to do,” said Winschel, who is the father of a toddler and a newborn. “We go to lunch or talk on the phone. Those little interactions stick with Thomas.”
Thomas says he loves having Winschel as his Big Brother because when they are together or talking on the phone, Thomas gets to be a teenager—not the man in the family.
“I know my real father, but he’s out of the picture,” Thomas said. “Mark is important. He’s there for me.”
For more information about becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, contact Vivian Gibson at 314-361-5900 or visit www.bbbsemo.org