Big Brothers Big Sisters give a big assist in life

Program provides an opportunity for even unlikely pairs to experience 'the dad stuff'

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter




There’s always imbalance in the clients and volunteers who come to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Seventy percent of incoming “littles,” as they’re called, are boys, while 70 percent of volunteers are adult women. While such matches aren’t unheard, vice president for programs Randy Johnson said, the agency generally matches men with boys and women with girls. Inevitably, that means many boys wait months or even years for a match. David Hinds waited for four years.

There are more than 250 ongoing matches in Clark County, Johnson said, and 1,200 across the Portland metro area.

Across the nation, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America serves approximately 200,000 at-risk children, ages 6 through 18.

Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest

What: Regional branch of a national nonprofit that matches adult mentors with at-risk children.

Where: 205 E. 11th St., Suite 102, in downtown Vancouver.

Phone: 360-891-8382.

On the Web:

Shy and nervous. Awkward but hopeful. That's how 15-year-old David Hinds felt when he met Jamie Stratton about a year ago.

"It was brand new, and I wanted it to get off on the right foot," said David, who's 16 today.

His modest ambition was to build a positive, lasting relationship with a man he could look up to and rely on. To hear him tell the tale, David hasn't benefited from much mature fathering in his short life. Other than a few years in foster care, he's lived mostly with his mother. A short stretch living with his father ended abruptly and badly — he still doesn't know why — when he was about 12, he said.

Now watch David and Stratton, who's 65, boisterously shoot hoops or cruise around on Stratton's motorcycle — or just hang out on the back deck, chatting over pizza — and the warm bond between them is obvious. David has achieved his first goal, and the pair now is working hard toward his second: graduating from high school.

"We've talked a lot about that," said Stratton, and about some of the difficulties David has had in the past, including suspensions from school. David has a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, his mother Rhonda Delagasse said, but the medication he needs hasn't always been affordable.

Together, David and Stratton have come up with a very basic, three-point plan for success in school:

• Be on time.

• Do your work.

• Respect your teachers.

"That's the big three," Stratton said. "You do those things and you'll graduate."

David isn't a big fan of school — "You know how teenagers are," he said — but he likes his English and math classes at Heritage High School, mostly because those teachers take the time to understand him and are willing to reach out "when I seem like I'm having a bad day."

"What I want is to see him get to choose his life, not have life choose for him," Stratton said. "He seems like he's doing better."

Careful matching

This unlikely but fruitful match was made by Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest, the regional branch of a national nonprofit agency that aims to steer at-risk children toward success through personal mentoring. Delagasse signed David up at age 11 because "he needed that boy stuff. His dad wasn't around. He never had anyone to play basketball with him except other kids. He never had anyone to do that dad stuff," she said.

It usually is single moms who approach BB/BS, vice president for programs Randy Johnson said, though school counselors and social service agencies sometimes do too. Age 8 to 12 is the "sweet spot" for making matches, Johnson said, because children younger than that probably are a bit young to be heading off on outings with strangers, while older kids may be just a little "too cool" for it all.

Child and parent are interviewed extensively, together and separately, Johnson said, to get at core issues. How are family relationships? How is school? What are the child's hobbies and interests? What are the rough spots? What are some overall goals?

"We ask a lot of questions in a lot of different ways," Johnson said. Graduating from high school is a common goal, he said.

David had to wait four years for a match. "By the time they finally called I'd forgotten about it," Delagasse said. There aren't nearly enough volunteers — especially males — to handle the clients looking for matches, Johnson said.

But Jamie Stratton felt called. At age 65, he is an empty-nester with children and grandchildren both far and near — but all are so busy with complicated lives, he said, he just doesn't see them much. "I was looking forward to spoiling the grandkids rotten, but it hasn't quite worked out that way," he said.

The longtime church youth leader and sponsor of impoverished children through ChildFund International attended a presentation at his Wilsonville, Ore., workplace about BB/BS and was "very impressed" with their successes, he said, against an "appalling" high school gradation rate. (It's 68 percent in Oregon and 76 percent in Washington.)

"I can't help everybody, but I can help one," he decided. "I still have something to give."

He went through the criminal background check, the interviews, the training. Within a couple weeks, his phone rang. David had picked out his profile. The two of them met, along with Delagasse and BB/BS match support specialist Carmella Bender for a series of initial ice breakers.

The first time "really is a bit like a blind date," Johnson said. Jitters are typical, with the so-called "big" often more jittery than the "little." Sometimes it stays tense, he said, but sometimes it winds up with the new pals practically dancing around the room with joy at what looks like a great new friendship.

Routine stuff

Everything seemed to click for David and Stratton. They went bowling and mountain biking. They played basketball. They hiked Multnomah Falls. They met for lunch at the mall. Eventually David came over and Stratton's wife, Rose, taught him to make spaghetti. Stratton started teaching David some basic auto maintenance, like fixing a flat tire and changing the oil.

All routine, low-key stuff — except that none of it was routine for David. "I have never had a dad ask me about school, or just be there for me," he wrote in a testimonial about the BB/BS program. "I think he cares about money and casinos and his girlfriend more than me."

Delagasse said David "had a wall up. He's been hurt a lot, which is the sad part. He has that tough boy attitude but he gets hurt quite a bit. At first he wouldn't depend on Jamie, he was expecting him not to show up."

Stratton remembered: "When I said I'd come over and pick him up at a certain time, and I did — he was flabbergasted. Time with David is pretty special, not only because it's fun, but I am convinced I'm helping this young man."

But seriously — wouldn't a 16-year-old boy prefer goofing off with friends on Sundays instead of keeping an appointment with somebody else's granddad?

Not at all, David said. "The thing about Jamie is that he's someone I trust. Would I rather have a bunch of friends to hang out with, or someone I can rely on?"

David says glowing things about Stratton's place in his life — things that suggest the label "fatherhood" — but Stratton emphasized that his role is firmly delineated, and limited, by BB/BS.

"I'm not his parent," Stratton said. "I don't get involved in parent-child discipline issues. That's not my role. And I'm not a bank account or a taxi service." No money changes hands. No doing therapy or getting into family disputes. When it comes to problems like ADHD and suspensions from school: "I don't judge. I don't have any idea what that's like," Stratton said.

Randy Johnson at BB/BS commented that "different cultures" can sometimes be a barrier between "bigs" and "littles." An adult who's enjoyed a lifetime of comfort, support and confidence may be challenged to "wrap his head around" a youngster in circumstances of need, neglect and trouble, Johnson said.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of big brothers in the world. This one checks on his little brother's grades. This one likes to talk about achieving goals. Delagasse has given him electronic access to David's school records and progress reports. "It's nice that he cares about David's education," she said.

Stratton is in fact an oldest sibling, so mentoring littler ones comes naturally to him. And he's spent years working as a safety and environmental compliance officer at FLIR Systems (that's "forward-looking infrared" technology, used in applications from aerospace to medicine), so he's pretty practiced at both coaching and confronting people when necessary, he said.

Wife Rose asserted that Stratton is "the most patient person I've ever known," which makes for a great "big." She pointed out that he was a missile-launch officer in the military during the Cold War — one of those guys with a very steady finger poised over a very lethal button. (Stratton never did push the button, of course. "If I had, we wouldn't be having this conversation," he laughed.)

'Keep them on the bank'

Johnson said he studied psychology and worked for years with youth in prison or on parole from the Oregon Youth Authority. "I loved it," he said, but he loved even more the idea of doing something to prevent those kids winding up in prison at all.

"Instead of throwing them a lifeline when they're already drowning in the river, let's try to keep them on the bank," he said.

It costs something like $60,000 a year to incarcerate one kid, he said; it costs BB/BS between $1,500 and $2,000 to make and support a match.

According to a study conducted in the mid-1990s for the national BB/BS organization, children who participate in the program do better in school and get along better with family; they are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol, 52 percent less likely to skip school, and 36 percent less likely to "hit someone."

The BB/BS commitment is to get together at least three or four times a month for at least one year. When it's shorter, less frequent and less regular than that, Johnson said, the bond may never get established and things can even go negative — perhaps only expanding the "little's" history of grown-ups who are unpredictable and unreliable.

But matches that last well into the second year — and sometimes much longer — are the ones with strong bonds and great outcomes, he said.

"He loves it, he absolutely loves it," Delagasse said. "It took David a long time to trust Jamie, but he trusts him now. He needed that in his life. It's been really good for David."

"I'm a screw-up and he still likes me," David wrote about Jamie Stratton. "He talks to me, he makes me feel good about myself, he shows up every week, not once has he flaked out on me. He cares about me.

"I hope he is always gonna be my big brother."