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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Big Brother or Sister can make a huge difference

Reunion, current pairing are Puget Sound success stories for organization

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Lori Morrone, right, was a Big Sister to Shannon Nakamura as a teen. They reunited last month in University Place.
Lori Morrone, right, was a Big Sister to Shannon Nakamura as a teen. They reunited last month in University Place. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Shannon Nakamura was only 11, but she had been taking care of herself for years.

She and her mother were always on the move, so it was difficult for her to make friends. She was getting into trouble at school. Drugs and sex were on her horizon.

“Job to job, school to school, never putting down roots,” Nakamura said. “I had four brothers, all by different fathers, and didn’t live with any of them. Imagine a 7-year-old taking care of the house. It was a weird way to grow up. Trust was an issue.”

Then she met Lori Morrone. Morrone was 22, with a job at a Tacoma hospital. She had a steady boyfriend. She knew how to bake and to make Halloween costumes. They went bowling together and talked. Morrone liked spending time with Nakamura.

That’s how Nakamura remembers her difficult childhood and how Morrone came into it.

“I thought I didn’t deserve someone so nice,” Nakamura said recently, her voice quivering. “I thought I was a bad kid. But she told me I was good. She stuck around.”

Morrone mentored Nakamura for several years through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. Nakamura even lived with Morrone for a summer. Then she and her mother abruptly moved again and they lost touch. That was about 35 years ago.

The two women, now 51 and 62 years old, met last month for the first time since Nakamura was a teenager. Today, Nakamura is a veterinary technician with her own practice in Hawaii. She reached out to Morrone through the website Classmates.com.

Recently they sat at the dining-room table in Morrone’s snug University Place home, catching up, laughing and wiping away tears. Morrone still likes spending time with Nakamura.

“I wondered what had happened to her, but there was no Facebook back then. Later, I didn’t know her new last name, so I couldn’t find her,” Morrone said. “I’m so glad she contacted me after all these years. To know I made a difference in her life, it matters.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound — one of 12 charities supported by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy campaign — builds bonds that last a long time.

The organization is the local branch of a national nonprofit that matches adult volunteers with children ages 6 to 18 who need caring, one-on-one mentoring. Established in 1957, it served 996 children last year across King and Pierce counties.

The population that Big Brothers Big Sisters serves is diverse. Roughly 26 percent of Puget Sound Littles are black, 24 percent white, 22 percent multiracial, 14 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, 2 percent Native American and 8 percent other.

Though only 44 percent of Littles are male, more than 70 percent of children on a waiting list for mentors are boys because less than a third of the volunteers are men.

Matthew Schwartz became one of those volunteers more than seven years ago. Schwartz thought he might have something special to offer a Little like Eric Thorland.

“Big Brothers Big Sisters asked who I would best match with,” recalled Schwartz, who works for a medical-imaging company and teaches at Bellevue College.

“My background is in the arts. I was actually an actor in another life. I said, ‘I’m sure you have Bigs who love to take Littles to baseball games and throw the football around, so match me and a Little with an artistic mind, a more sensitive nature.’ They paired me with Eric. It was the perfect match.”

Some Littles are like Nakamura, severely vulnerable children living on the edge, and others are more like Eric, of Bellevue, who needed encouragement. Eric’s mother, Jehan Thorland, clearly remembers why she asked Big Brothers Big Sisters for help.

“My husband was from North Dakota. He had an MBA and was working for Boeing. He was diagnosed with cancer when Eric was 2, and passed within 10 months.”

Jehan Thorland is originally from Fiji, an island country in the South Pacific. She hadn’t exactly planned on helping Eric grow up in the Pacific Northwest on her own.

“There I was, raising a son without a male role model. I didn’t know how to ski or go hiking or roller blading,” the mother said. “When Eric was young and playing tennis and soccer, I noticed he was very shy. The other little kids would push him around.”

Schwartz and Eric met when Eric was almost 10. The two connected right away.

“We started talking about what our perfect worlds would be,” said Schwartz, 38. “He had already drawn his. He pulled out some pictures. It was called Eric-topia. There was a Platypus god and cheese for all the citizens. We just sat around laughing about that.”

Eric was studying the pancreas in class and Schwartz was training to become an ultrasound technologist, so Schwartz brought Eric to his lab. “We got to do an ultrasound and actually see the pancreas. It was a lot of fun for both of us,” he said.

That’s been the constant for Schwartz and Eric as Eric has grown up: fun for both of them. Their favorite activities are hiking, watching movies and visiting art museums. They once marched together in Seattle’s beloved celebration of weirdness, the Fremont Solstice Parade. Schwartz wore stilts while Eric walked alongside.

On a recent trip to the Bellevue Arts Museum, Schwartz did most of the talking — explaining works of art, whispering and cracking jokes. Eric did most of the grinning.

“Matt is like any of my other friends,” he said. “I’ve known him a while. We hang out.”

There are things that make Schwartz different from Eric’s other friends. He’s writing a recommendation for Eric’s applications to Seattle University and the University of Puget Sound. Not every friend can do that. Plus, Schwartz is much older than his Little.

But he talks about their relationship the same way. “Eric and I do the same stuff together I would otherwise do with my friends or my girlfriend or myself,” he said.

The match must be a success because Eric would like to become a Big himself someday. “In the future, when I have a good job and some free time,” he said.

“There are kids out there who need someone to take them out to do things,” Eric added. “The program helps a wide variety of people, but the activities are going to be what the Little and Big enjoy. I could probably do it. It’s pretty easy.”

Nakamura is thinking about becoming a volunteer, too. Her life is more stable now than ever before, and she knows how much good a mentor can do. She went looking for Morrone because she never forgot her gentle support.

“I was headed down a really bad road,” she said. “It was only a matter of time before I would have had a baby. I was starting to do drugs. Lori gave me replacements for those activities. She gave me a clean, safe space where honesty was important, and she wasn’t going to stop loving me because of something I had done or thought about.”

There was something missing in Nakamura’s world before she met Morrone, just like there was something missing in Eric’s world until Schwartz stepped in. Jehan Thorland has watched Schwartz’s confidence, kindness and zeal for life rub off on her son.

“That’s why Big Brothers Big Sisters is awesome,” she said. “It fills in the blanks.”