When Father’s Day arrives Sunday, some boys will be celebrating “big brothers” like Tony Smith instead.
With three grown sons of his own, Smith is now sharing his time and experience with another young boy who needs a guiding hand. Through the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program, Smith for two years has been a friend and mentor to Antione, a fourth grader at C.A. Donehoo Elementary School in Gadsden.
BBBS matches volunteer mentors in long-term relationships with children and teens facing adversity. The mentors help these children beat the odds and build a promising future. BBBS provides ongoing support for volunteers, children and parents throughout the life of the match.
“When I decided to become a big brother, I prayed about it,” said Smith, Alabama Power Gadsden Office manager who was then serving on the board of the BBBS of Northeast Alabama. “I wanted to be matched with someone I could have an impact on. I think allowing these kids to see more positive men in their lives is important.”
Since then, Smith and Antione have spent hours “hanging out” together at the movies, skating rink and baseball park. Smith introduced his “Little” to electricity and power safety by taking him to an Alabama Power Safe-T-Opolis presentation. That was before COVID-19 brought a halt to their outings in March.
“COVID has been hard for us,” said Smith. “Antione didn’t understand why we couldn’t go somewhere. I had to remind him that with the virus going on, we have to make sure we stay safe.”
Because Antione does not own a smartphone or have access to Facetime, Smith said the two have not seen each other since the pandemic began. But Smith has been regularly calling his little brother to make sure he is staying on top of his homework assignments and to talk about what he is doing for fun, such as playing video games.
Smith has tried to lend a helping hand to the family during this time by dropping meals off at their front door.
With many businesses and organizations, such as the BBBS of Alabama, cautiously loosening restrictions and opening their doors, Smith and Antione are once again looking forward to meeting face-to-face.
“Antione has a birthday coming up this month,” said Smith. “My plan is to get together with him and see what he wants to do to celebrate.”
Smith and Antione were not the only ones who had to look for other ways to connect during the pandemic.
Clinton Johnson, Mobile Division community relations manager, is part of the BBBS school-based program, which meant that connecting with his little brother was more difficult. Through this program, Johnson and his little brother, Manquerius, a Maryvale Elementary fourth grader, met each week at the school before the coronavirus hit.
“Since we met only at the school, I did not have Manquerius’ contact information,” said Johnson, who has been the boy’s big brother for six months. “When COVID-19 happened, I sent him cards and letters through BBBS to let him know that I was thinking about him.”
Johnson now has Manquerius’ phone number and email address and plans to meet with him via Skype or Zoom this summer.
Johnson said Manquerius is his second little brother. Johnson has been involved with the BBBS program since 2009 – first in Birmingham and now in Mobile.
“One of my passions is to give back, and this is just one way to do that,” he said. “If a young man doesn’t have a positive role model in his life, I can be that person. If I get a little brother and he sees someone who cares about him and wants him to succeed, he will grow up and be a better citizen. Hopefully, he will become a big brother himself one day.”
BBBS of Alabama during COVID-19
The coronavirus forced the BBBS of Alabama’s six chapters to turn to remote operations.
“Thank goodness we already had a program called Network for Good, where we sent emails and Facebook notices to our big and little brothers and sisters,” said Valerie Pugliese, CEO of BBBS of Northeast Alabama. “We began sending our Bigs things they could do with their Littles to help keep them engaged. Our Bigs were also posting ‘Hellos” to their Littles on our Facebook page.”
On June 1, the BBBS of Northeast Alabama began encouraging mentors and youths to once again meet, while keeping social distancing in mind, Pugliese said. The agency provided face masks to all the big and little brothers and sisters to help keep them safe during their outings.
An active volunteer through the BBBS of South Alabama, Johnson said the chapter has communicated regularly with the big and little brothers and sisters through email and social media.
Additionally, with the increased need for food among agency-sponsored families, the chapter converted its “Little Free Libraries” into “Little Food Pantries,” said BBBS of South Alabama CEO Aimee Risser. As part of this effort, Johnson has adopted the Little Food Pantry at Holloway Elementary School in Mobile and is keeping it stocked with canned goods.
The National BBBS organization is developing an app that volunteers and youths can use as a communication tool, allowing the big and little brothers and sisters to easily keep in touch, said Pugliese. The app allows the chapters to track volunteer hours.
“We hope that we will still be welcome in the schools when they start in the fall,” Pugliese said. “With 76% of our matches through the school-based program, we’re concerned. Nothing is as good as a one-on-one relationship, but we are trying to be proactive and think we will have to move toward e-mentoring and the new app in future to complement our in-person activities.”
Risser commended Johnson for his commitment to his little brother and BBBS of South Alabama, adding his experience makes him an asset to the agency.
“Clinton came in full force,” said Alecia Johnson, BBBS of South Alabama school-based match specialist. “His little brother loves him and in a very short time they have really bonded well. Clinton is one of my most dedicated big brothers. He gives 100%. I can’t wait to see how his match with his Little and our agency will blossom.”
Pugliese also recognized Smith for his contributions.
“Tony is a good man and a good volunteer,” she said. “He has raised three sons, and he still has time for another one. He’s a good role model and friend to Antione.”
For more information about BBBS of Alabama, visit www.bbbsofalabama.org.