Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Oklahoma

Sometimes showing up is enough.

Mark Denny has to wonder: How much of an impact can he make playing putt-putt and eating hamburgers?

When Denny gets together with his 14-year-old Little Brother as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, the conversation is light – sports, school, friends. They haven’t had a defining or groundbreaking moment. They’re just hanging out. And that’s OK.

In fact, Lora Boyle, match support manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma, says it’s perfect.

“A lot of Bigs aren’t sure if they’re making an impact or not. We have to remind them – the very virtue that you’re seeing them once a week is making an impact. Having a stable, reliable person in their lives is what’s important,” she said.

For Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma, finding those reliable people is key. This summer, the Tulsa chapter kicks off its 90 Men in 90 Days campaign to recruit men to the organization.

Currently, 150 kids are on the waiting list to be matched with a Big in Tulsa. Of those, 80 percent are boys.

“We have a serious shortage of Big Brothers in Tulsa,” said Mary Smith Crofts, area director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma. “We are able to meet the demand for Big Sisters, but have a significant challenge in recruiting the number of Big Brothers needed to satisfy the demand.”

Crofts cites lack of awareness and misunderstanding about what’s involved as factors.

Hayley Garrison, vice president of programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters, said men also wonder how much of an impact they could make. They worry their own flaws will detract from being the “perfect” Big Brother.

“They say, `I don’t know how to change a kid’s life,’” Garrison said. “But it’s about the friendship. It’s about being there.”

Just showing up. That’s what Mark Denny does. And, sometimes it’s hard. Denny has a wife, a 3-year-old and a baby at home, so he works in visits with his Little during his baby’s naptime on a Saturday afternoon or after work once he’s had dinner with his family.

“I hope I’m helping just by being there. You can’t go in there hoping for affirmation that you’re doing a good job. Being there is the important part,” Denny said.

Kids come to the program for various reasons. Some have lost a parent. Some boys have never had a male role model – not a dad, uncle or grandfather – in their lives. And, in Tulsa, 40 percent of the kids in Big Brothers Big Sisters have at least one parent who’s incarcerated.

Moms in single-parent homes raising boys sometimes seek Big Brothers Big Sisters specifically to give their sons a male influence.

“I’ve had so many moms say they would have never been able to teach their sons what they’ve learned from their Big Brothers,” Garrison said.

And while some of those life lessons may be significant, others are simple but just as meaningful – like teaching a boy to shave.

Boyle recalled the story of a Little with a father and other family members who were incarcerated.

“The Big Brother and Little Brother were having lunch together, and the Little said, `When I go to jail,’ like it was what he expected his life to be like,” Boyle said. “Over time, the Big talked to him about his options, careers and staying in school. He told him he didn’t have to go to jail.”

She’s also seen Bigs invest in their Littles as they’re preparing to graduate high school, helping them prepare for the ACT and fill out college applications.

And some of those Big-Little friendships last well into adulthood for the Littles, Boyle said.

Garrision said the organization matches children with adults of the same gender, resulting in better outcomes; although, Big Brothers Big Sisters does have a couples program where a husband and wife can choose to be matched together with a child. For some men reluctant to take on the responsibility of becoming a Big Brother, joining with their wives is a good way to test the waters.

Big Brothers and Big Sisters are asked to make a one-year commitment to the organization once they decide to join. It’s recommended they make time to see their Littles three to four times a month. Volunteers are screened, including background checks and references, and are given in-person training on what it takes to be a successful Big.

“The important part isn’t that you’re perfect. It’s more that you’re willing to listen and take an interest,” Denny said. “And hopefully, you’ll get to make a difference in one person’s life.”