By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– She is a big sister. He is a little brother. Together, they make one dynamic duo.
Kinsey and Keon have been matched through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County program since February 2010. The two have taken in baseball games, gone to the museum, played games, baked cupcakes and even attended an Iowa Hawkeye football game at Kinnick Stadium. They picnic together, play catch and sometimes, do nothing more than chat about how their days went, joke around and hang out.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County would like to create more successful matches like this, particularly in the North Liberty area. The public is invited to learn more about the program during a volunteer open house event on Monday, June 20, at Red’s Alehouse, 405 N. Dubuque St., from 4 to 7 p.m.
“Just drop by after work, maybe grab a bite and learn more about our volunteer program,” said Big Brothers Big Sisters Community Relations Director Sara Barron.
“We work with so many kids in the North Liberty area,” Barron continued. “We want to encourage a wide variety of people to volunteer.” Barron said the program welcomes couples and individuals of all ages. Currently, the program has volunteers as young as 18 and those who are in their mid-60s.
Twenty-seven year old Kinsey Barlett of North Liberty said she gave long and careful thought to making the commitment to become a Big Sister.
“I am in a good place, and have the time to give,” said Bartlett, who works in Panchero’s corporate office. “It’s a good way to give back to the community, plus I get to hang out with kiddos.”
It’s a win-win situation for Bartlett.
“It’s fun to experience different things, things you might not have done if you didn’t have a buddy. We like to try to new things together,” she said.
During a recent outing at Liberty Centre Pond, Keon thought about his favorite activity he and Kinsey do together; he could only come up with one.
“Everything!” said Keon, and his smile lit up the park.
But both Bartlett and Barron were careful to emphasize that having a Little Brother or Little Sister match does not require scheduling extravagant activities or special outings. Simple things like going out to eat, baking at home or playing board games can be just as gratifying.
“We ask you to think about the things you enjoy doing in your free time, and picture how you could welcome a child to join you doing those things,” explained Barron. “There is a diverse range of kids who enjoy many different kinds of things. So if you like to do outdoor things, we can match you with a child who also likes to be outdoors. If you like to cook or do crafts, I know lots of kids who enjoy those activities too.”
Bartlett said the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization does a good job of matchmaking.
“They put a lot of work into matching people with common interests,” said Bartlett. “They are so helpful, and they sponsor group activities so they make it easy for you to find fun things to do.” For example, Bartlett has been a Bowl for Kids’ Sake participant.
And the community-based program has also created Sports Buddies matches, those who are game for a little more lively time together. Big Brothers Big Sisters makes tickets available to various sporting events and notifies Sports Buddy volunteers of active opportunities in and around the community.
“So the pressure’s not always on the Big Brother or Big Sister to plan everything,” said Bartlett.
She and Keon have done some very special things together, but some of their favorite times have just been spending time in the kitchen, cooking spaghetti or tacos and making pretzels for Keon to share with his siblings at home. However they spend their time, getting together about once each week, the togetherness is the most important part for Keon.
“She asks me about school, and how was my day,” he said. “We have fun together.”
Barron said the program asks volunteers to make at least a one-year commitment, making time to see the child two to four times each month.
In this program, time spent is definitely time invested.
“It’s different than other volunteer opportunities, because you are making a commitment to a child, not an organization,” said Barron, “and that has a lot of rewards.”
Proven rewards, in fact. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County is part of the national program, and that organization’s evaluative studies have provided very compelling statistics (see charts below), as well as some pretty big impacts on participants. In a 2009 survey, 81 percent of former Littles agreed their Big gave them hope and changed their perspective of what they thought possible; 85 percent said their experience influenced them in overcoming adversity or problems with courage; and 67 percent of former Littles agreed their Big played a role in their decision to attend college.
It’s that kind of contribution Bartlett hopes to make as well.
“Hopefully, I can be a positive influence and a good role model to Keon,” she said.
Barron said the Big partners are equally influenced by their Little charges.
“It’s a chance to set aside time in their schedules to play and have fun, and they enjoy that time just as much as kids do,” said Barron. “The thing children need most from their mentors is attention and a chance to do things with an adult who cares for them and wants to help them experience everything that Johnson County has to offer.”
The local program has been making the effort for 35 years now. Currently, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County serves about 700 kids every year.
Still, at any given time, Barron noted, there are between 50 and 75 children on the list waiting to be matched.
It’s one of the reasons for the upcoming open house. The other, said Barron, is to make North Liberty aware of the opportunity to serve in such a meaningful way.
“It’s so great that Big Brothers Big Sisters can serve kids throughout all of Johnson County. We take a lot of pride in that,” said Barron. “North Liberty is growing so quickly, and people in the community deserve to have all the resources this area has to offer.”
Bartlett promises it will be a worthwhile experience.
“Just go ahead and give it a try,” she said. “I don’t know how you could ever be disappointed, or ever regret spending time with your buddy.”
For kids like Keon, it can make a world of difference, and he doesn’t mind letting people know it.
“I just tell them, ‘She’s my big sister.’”
And that says a whole lot.