Big Brothers, Big Sisters needed

They may be a little under the radar, but the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is active in Washington County and looking to grow.

The Athens County chapter of the organization that focuses on making a difference in the lives of children by pairing them with positive mentors and role models covers Washington and two other counties and is looking to eventually hire a part-time coordinator to expand the program here.

“Our big goal is to help children overcome challenges and obstacles and help them reach their goals and dreams,” said Tara Gilts, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Athens County.

The organization has made five matches of children with adults in the area and are growing as children come to them and mentors are available, Gilts said. The program is geared toward any child that needs an older mentor, often those in single-parent or non-traditional families.

“The key is that the parent or guardian and the child all have to be excited,” she said.

A Big Brother or Sister must be at least 18 years old and willing to commit to spending time at least once a week with a child for a minimum of a year. Spouses or couples in a long-term relationship can also serve as a Big Couple. What they do together can vary, from helping with homework to going to a sporting event or museum, Gilts said.

“It could even be as simple as including that child in activities you’re already doing,” she said.

Parkersburg resident Gary Oplinger, 58, recently started as a Big Brother, matched with a boy from Washington County.

“I guess I’ve been blessed my whole life and been fortunate to have a lot and just wanted to give back,” he said.

Little Hocking resident Brian McCoy, 45, works at Ohio University and serves as the Big Brother for two siblings in Athens. He got involved in the program after his adopted son had started his own family.

“I kind of was going through the empty nest syndrome, and was looking for something to do,” he said.

McCoy encourages his “littles” to do well in their schoolwork and hopes to expose them to new things, from social etiquette to playing pool, which they did for the first time on one of their outings.

“It gives me a sense of personal satisfaction knowing that I’m helping to do something for someone,” he said.

And McCoy recommends the program to anyone else who wants to make a difference.

“It takes just a few hours of their time every month,” he said.

The largest presence of Big Brothers Big Sisters locally can be found on Thursday afternoons at Washington Elementary School. Through the Youth in Leadership program, 13 Marietta High School students serve as “bigs” to a group of youngsters recommended by school personnel as needing “a little extra support or guidance,” Gilts said.

“There’s some kids that just need an adult or an older person to connect to and just build a strong, appropriate relationship,” Washington Elementary Principal Scott Kratche said.

Third-grader Lakisha Bigler said her favorite part of the program is “talking to my Big Sister and having fun.”

The feeling’s mutual, according to her “big,” MHS sophomore Cady Lenington.

“I really enjoy spending time with her and feeling like I have an influence,” she said.

MHS freshman Joshua Gould said he thought the program sounded like a neat idea when he was younger, so he decided to give it a try. Patience is a key when working with a “little,” he said.

“He (doesn’t) listen, that’s for sure,” Gould laughed, “but its real fun to work with him.”

After helping out with homework, the bigs and littles do an activity focused on healthy living, often preparing some kind of nutritious snack.

Sarah Chambers, Youth in Leadership program coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Athens County, said she would like to see the after-school program expand to other schools here.