Bigs and Littles

June 10-16, 2004
Bigs and Littles
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Big Brothers/Big Sisters Honor Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School for its Commitment

When Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School principal Dennis Meehan was asked to implement a Big Brothers/Big Sisters Program at his school four years ago, he couldn’t say no. Oscar Vergara, the director of youth services for Big Brothers/Big Sisters wouldn’t let him. Vergara is widely known for his persuasion to get what he needs for his kids. “He is the best politician in the room,” said Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli. Through Vergara’s efforts, Magnarelli provided member money to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Program to purchase a 10-passenger van. “How can you say no to Oscar?” said Meehan. As a result of Vergara’s tenacity, Bishop Ludden became the first school-based Big Brother/Big Sisters Program in Central New York. When it started, 22 elementary children from city schools were being mentored by upper classmen from Bishop Ludden. In the 2004 school year, 49 students have provided 3,350 mentoring hours to 44 children from Seymour and Van Duyn Schools.

More than 200 people attended the volunteer recognition dinner held at the Holiday Inn on June 3 to pay tribute to students from six area high schools and Le Moyne College who mentored 148 “littles” from 11 elementary schools during the 2003/2004 school year. Keynote speaker Toks Olawoye, account executive of retail sales at the Post Standard and a board member of P.E.A.C.E. (People’s Equal Actions and Community Efforts) Inc., thanked corporate sponsors, supportive parents and committed students. “Why do people volunteer?” asked Olawoye. “What is their motivation?” Olawoye responded to his own questions. “It’s because of the love of humanity that people get involved. However, we cannot rest on our laurels. There are still 120 kids waiting for a big brother or big sister,” he said.

Olawoye explained that there is a danger of losing underprivileged kids now more than ever. “We need volunteers more than ever,” he said. Olawoye said that 33 percent of the underprivileged kids in Syracuse are being raised by grandparents or other relatives. “That’s more than New York City,” he said. “These kids are in a state of crisis.” Jeremy Durby, a fifth-grade student at Van Duyn School, has been in the program since October. When asked why he joined, he replied, “I like it cause I’m staying away from home.” Jeremy is the middle child of six and meets with his big sister Emily Hildmann every Wednesday. The pair spend the first 30 minutes of their time together doing homework. Then they move on to games, snacks and just hanging out. “I talk about how my week is going and what things have happened in school,” said Jeremy. “She tells me not to talk back to the teachers, to behave and not to mess up.” Jeremy has four sisters and one brother and said that Emily treats him nicer than his sisters. “It’s fun,” he said. “You get to learn more and try more things.”

Lavon Washington is in sixth grade at Seymour School and has built a strong relationship with his “big,” Eric Hojnowski. The two have been together in the program for three years. When Lavon was asked what he and his “big” talk about, Lavon responded, “Sports. He likes soccer and I like kickball.” Eric and Lavon spend much more time together than the one hour per week required by the program. “Eric has taken me to a Crunch game, the movies and to his house to hang out,” said Lavon. “I tell him what’s going on in school and he gives me advice.” Eric was honored at the recognition dinner for going above and beyond in his commitment to the program. He was presented with an award honoring him as High School Big Brother of the Year. Eric said he learned many lessons from his experience as a big brother. “I learned about the value and importance of patience and that trust, which is so crucial in relationships, takes time to develop.” Eric said that Lavon became a true friend. “I’ve tried to contribute a significant amount of time, especially time listening,” said Eric. “Through the program, I have become aware of how important it is to just be there for the ‘littles.’”

Meehen was awarded for his commitment and support of the program. When accepting the award, Meehan said he was humbled that Bishop Ludden was the recipient of the award considering the number of students who are involved in the program from the other six schools. “By valuing the Gospel message we embrace the concept of community, and within that community we come to an understanding the importance of service to one another,” said Meehan. “Credit goes to the parents and teachers who encourage their students, but more importantly, to the students who witness to their faith through the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program.”

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