Big Brothers/Big Sisters

'School Time Friends' make a difference

Program provides positive adult role models

By Monique Harrison

Daily Journal

When Tupelo's Symone Carr began to notice that her son Jimmal was having problems dealing with anger, she reached out for help.

"I heard about Big Brothers/Big Sisters and called the school, wanting to know if he qualified," said Carr, who is a single mother raising her two children and two nephews. "Jimmal got in (the program) and things are better now. His attitude is better. I'm not sure exactly what approach they use, but it works."

Jimmal, who is in first grade at Joyner Elementary, is one of 37 participants in the School Time Friends program, which is a branch of Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

The program, which is in its third semester, is designed to reach children who otherwise might not be paired with an adult mentor because of a shortage of volunteers in the more intensive Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.

"More people are willing to commit to School Time Friends because it is only for about 45 minutes, once a week," said Lee County Big Brothers/Big Sisters coordinator Brenda Bridges. "The corps program is a one-year commitment and there is a minimum of two to three visits each month. People aren't as willing to commit to that because they might not have the time."

Making time to mentor

Jimmal's mentor, Kenneth Roberts, originally was unsure if he'd have time to serve as a full-time Big Brother, but after working in the School Time Friends program, decided to make the switch.

"I found myself wanting to spend more time with him," said Roberts, who is supervisor of facility operations at North Mississippi Medical Center. "We are very close. We do things together - talk on the phone a good bit. We're going to go to the movies and last week we went out to dinner and rode around looking at Christmas lights. When the weather warms, we will probably go swimming. I want him to see that there are a lot of different activities he can be involved in - to expose him to what is out there."

Although Roberts' wife is expecting a child this spring, he said he's not worried he won't have time for Jimmal.

"If you want to make time, you do that," he said. "I'll still spend the same amount of time with him. I explained that it won't interrupt our relationship and he understands that."

Jimmal's teacher said she's seen a drastic change.

"I almost don't recognize him," said first-grade teacher Sherry Moore. "The expression on his face is even different."

She said she's amazed at how close the pair are.

"Jimmal calls and talks to Kenneth every day or leaves long messages on his answering machine," she said. "Kenneth encourages that. They are very close. It's like they really are brothers."

Moore said that at Christmas, when other boys were making gifts for their fathers or older brothers, Jimmal made his for Kenneth.

Happy with her friend

Six-year-old Cameron Rogers is another student who would not yet be paired with an adult mentor without School Time Friends.

"My older son and daughter have been in the regular program, so this is something Cameron has always wanted to do - since she was about three," said mom Sharon Rogers. "We wanted to get her in the full-time program, but there aren't enough volunteers. She's been very happy with her (School Time Friend).

"In Cameron's eyes, she is a special child because when her friend comes to school, she comes to see her - not anyone else. That makes Cameron feel good. And when Cameron is happy, it makes me very happy."

Cameron gives her adult mentor, who visits the school to help with school work, play outside or just talk, rave reviews.

"She's really nice - never mean," Cameron said. "We talk about a lot of things - about books and about what I'm doing at school. It's fun."

Cameron's participation in the program has sparked a heightened interest in academics.

"When Cameron is bored, she wants you to make math problems for her to solve," her mother said. "It's because when she and her friend are together, that's what they do. It's great that she thinks that's fun."

Activities shared by students and their adult friends vary.

"The teacher usually makes suggestions because they know the child's mind-set better than just about anyone," Bridges said. "If the child is troubled emotionally, they usually just talk. If school work is a problem, they work on that. It's very flexible."

Based on need

Currently, the program is in place in six Tupelo and Lee County schools - Plantersville School, Shannon Elementary, Joyner Elementary, Rankin Elementary, King Intermediate and Milam Intermediate.

Students are selected based on need.

Most participants come from one-parent homes or homes where no natural parents are present. Students may also qualify if they live in two-parent homes where one parent is disabled or is frequently absent.

Before being allowed to serve as a mentor, applicants are screened and background checks are done.

Lee County's program is one of 500 Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapters nationwide, with three located in Mississippi. Jackson and Hattiesburg also have programs.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters got its start in Lee County in 1989, when the United Way began searching for a program that could serve to offset youth problems like juvenile crime and teen pregnancy.

Early in the development stage, coordinators of Lee County's program decided that while they wanted to meet national standards, they also wanted to remain flexible enough to meet needs unique to the community.

"School Time Friends is one example of how we have addressed needs - of ways we are flexible," Bridges said.

The program is partially funded by the United Way. Several fund-raisers, including a bowl-a-thon and lollipop sales, also help to foot the organization's estimated $70,000 annual cost. The program also receives a variety of private and corporate donations.

Record of success

The track record for the national program, which is older than the Boy Scouts of America, is a good one, results from a Philadelphia policy research organization study show.

The study, which looked at 959 children between 10 and 16 who applied to the 91-year-old program in 1992 and 1993, showed participants were less likely to start using alcohol or to assault someone. They were shown to be more likely to do well in school and to relate well to family and friends.

First-time drug use was cut by 46 percent and school absenteeism was decreased by 52 percent among participants, when compared to the control group, which was made up of applicants who were not placed. Violent behavior was 33 percent lower among participants.

Bridges said the national statistics are in line with what she has seen locally.

"We believe we are making a difference - changing things," she said. "All you have to do is talk to these children, and you can see that their odds of success are higher."

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