TAMPA — When Alan Cohen decided he was ready to become a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, he waited six to eight weeks before he was matched with a child in need.
His “little,” like many children in the program, had to wait about a year.
The two have been matched for nearly seven years and the boy Cohen was matched with says the pairing produced a strong friendship and was worth the wait. Yet the long wait lists for children in need of a mentor pose a constant struggle for the organization, which pairs low-income, at-risk youth with an adult to guide them.
That struggle has big stakes. For many of the children, the program offers a desperately needed opportunity to be paired with a strong role model who can help them succeed in school and avoid the temptations of the streets. That goal has taken on even more urgency in the wake of this year’s outburst of gun-related violence among kids in Tampa’s poorest neighborhoods.
More than 3,100 “littles” got a “big” last year in the Tampa Bay area, about half of them in Hillsborough County. But that still left more than 1,100 children on a waiting list to be matched with a big brother or big sister — a wait that can take a few months or as long as a few years because of a shortage of adult mentors in the system, staff said.
“We don’t even know how many other kids aren’t on the waiting list because we can’t honestly tell them they should join because the likelihood of finding a match for them before they age out of the program is too low,’’ said Brian Auld, president of The Tampa Bay Rays and a board member for Big Brothers Big Sisters Tampa Bay. “We’ve got to solve this problem.”
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Cohen’s “little’’ goes by the name of Sir.Giorgio, or Sir to his friends; Big Brothers Big Sisters does not release the last name of children because of privacy concerns. Sir.Giorgio said if Cohen, 63, had not taken him to Universal Studios on March 21, he could have been at a birthday party in Sulfur Springs where his friend Richard Newton, 14, was shot and killed.
Sir said his time with Cohen helps protect him from the violence in his neighborhood.
“On the weekends I’m mostly hanging out with Alan or my mother, and on weekdays we’re tutoring or at football practice or playing games inside so I don’t hang out with those people,” Sir said.
“I really didn’t have a good father figure in my life and Alan is always there when I need him. He’s helped me grow stronger,” he said.
Others aren’t as fortunate.
The long waiting list has existed since the organization started in Tampa in the 1980’s, and exists at each of the 325 Big Brothers Big Sisters branches operating throughout the nation, said Pam Iorio, Tampa’s former mayor and the national president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
But the longer wait lists can also be a sign that the organization is doing its job of recruiting as many children as possible and stringently vetting volunteers, she said. Big Brothers Big Sisters requires a long interview process to find a strong and safe match for each child based on location, availability, personality, a child’s problem areas and a family’s individual desires. It’s far more complicated than matching the first child on the list with the first adult on the list, she said.
“There are millions of at-risk children across the country, but we have to make sure we truly help each child to the best of our ability,” Iorio said.
The Tampa branch is the largest in the southeastern U.S. and among the top 10 in the nation, said Big Brothers Big Sisters Tampa Bay CEO Stephen Koch.
The organization is taking steps to shorten the waiting list, he said.
The Hillsborough and Pinellas branches of Big Brothers Big Sisters merged in January to help steady the organization’s efforts. The new Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay encompasses seven counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Pasco, Citrus, Hernando and Sumter. With a combined staff of about 100, the organization has set a goal to serve 3,550 kids in 2015. The group has also partnered with Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa Bay and Tampa Jewish Family Services in recent months to identify children in need and mentors.
This summer will kick off the “100 Men and 100 Days” campaign to recruit more male mentors. Boys make up 41 percent of the children in Big Brothers Big Sisters and typically end up waiting longer than females due to a lack of male “bigs.”
Some boys can be matched with a “big sister” if they are under the age of 10, or even a “big couple” who mentor the child together. Most of the children in the program are minorities, and nearly all live at or below the poverty level, Koch said. About 25 percent of the children have parents who have been or are currently incarcerated.
“The merger let us devote more people to volunteer recruitment and foster new partnerships with local organizations, which has really paid off,” Koch said. “The biggest reason behind it was that Tampa Bay is really one market and we were always running into situations where people lived in one county but wanted to volunteer in another. Well, who cares? We’re really one community and now we’ve broken down those barriers to make it easier for people to get involved.”
But every new match also comes with a barrier — a $1,250 a year price tag.
That sum pays for annual background checks, fingerprinting, volunteer training, support programs, coaching and supervision from staff, said Big Brothers Big Sisters board member Tammy Curtis. About 54 percent of Big Brothers Big Sisters revenue comes from private sources.
The organization announced during its annual fundraising luncheon Thursday that it reached the minimum number of pre-orders to create a specialty Florida license plate. That will provide the program with a portion of each $34.26 sale. Big Brothers Big Sisters has worked for several years to create the license plate, which features a big beach chair and a little beach chair, Koch said.
The Tampa Bay chapter’s retention rate for “bigs” is at least 41 percent, but the demographics have shifted over the seven years Cohen mentored Sir. “Bigs” used to primarily be young college students but now many are retirees like him, he said. Sir’s younger brother and sister both had bigs at one point who were college age. Both eventually quit because of the time commitment, and neither child was ever rematched.
Sir’s whole family is included in trips to the circus with Cohen’s family and Big Brothers Big Sisters picnics, but the meaningful moments happen one-on-one, when the two are working out math problems at school or life problems at McDonald’s, Cohen said. The program needs adults willing to invest in children’s lives for the long haul to be successful, he said.
“Sir has taught me to have a positive outlook on life, and that I really can make a difference to somebody just by truly being there,” Cohen said.