Big Brothers Big Sisters gives at-risk kids a new future
Growing up, some of the most important lessons in childrens’ lives come from their parents.
In a normal household, children learn how to be responsible, how to take care of themselves, how to manage peer pressure and so on.
But sometimes a special circumstance arises and a child is in danger of losing out on those priceless lessons. In a one-parent household, a parent can be of desperate need for help.
For around 40 years Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California has stepped in and filled the necessary gap in the lives of many such children.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters professionally matches youth with mentors,” said Nancy Conway, the organization’s fund development officer.
“We can help them with basic life skills,” she said. “We don’t have to spend money every time. It’s not about that; it’s about helping them.
“It’s about letting them see there are other options in their life.”
The organization connects a child in need, called a Little, with an adult, called a Big, who is willing to spend a little bit of time being there for the child.
The organization’s biggest impact, Conway said, is in education.
According to the company’s statistics, more than 50 percent of children in the program are less likely to skip school, and 37 percent are less likely to skip class.
It was also reported that the students are more confident in themselves, which positively influences better performance with schoolwork, resulting in higher grade-point averages.
Matthew Boam was 6 years old when he met his Big, John Merrit.
Merrit, who went by the name Wes, was 29 years old when the two first met.
“He was the best thing to ever happen to me as a child,” Boam said.
“He was something I could look up to,” Boam said. “He taught me a lot. He taught me ethics, responsibility.
“He’s a friend, he’s a mentor, he’s a father figure, (and) he’s a disciplinarian.”
Boam said that Merrit, who was a deputy county council for Fresno County at the time, taught him ethics and much more.
“There were also other things he taught me like doing yard work, paying bills, being responsible,” Boam said. “A lot of people think that Big Brothers Big Sisters is all about having fun.
“It’s actually more than that; these are mentors (who help) these kids learn new skills.”
With Merrit behind him, Boam became successful in his education, ultimately going to Fresno State as a history major with a minor in geography.
For four years he worked at KFSR at Fresno State doing traffic, production and a Wednesday afternoon metal show.
Boam loved radio, and for a short while he operated a pirate radio station at Fresno City playing metal, that is, until the FCC caught wind and shut it down.
While at Fresno State he got his teaching credentials in social science. He also tutored at schools such as Fresno High School and Wawona Middle School.
Boam fell in love with teaching, and today he is a multimedia instructor at a regional occupational program class at Lemoore High School. He has been there for around nine years.
“I have a good life,” Boam said. “I have a really good life right now and that’s because of Wes Merrit.”
“If it wasn’t for Wes Merrit and Big Brothers I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today,” he said. “I want to be a mentor to these kids.”
For six months out of the year, Boam also referees soccer games for Fresno City.
“I think anyone that’s interested in being a big brother or big sister would influence a life,” Boam said. “I think it’s a great program, especially for at-risk kids.
“It’s very self-rewarding.”
Ernesto Cazares, 28, also has Big Brothers Big Sisters to thank for getting him to where he is today.
When he was 9 years old, he was living with his mother who was raising Cazares by herself. Cazares’ father wasn’t there for him.
“He never was a father,” Cazares said. “He never did anything that a dad would do for his kids.
“I remember going to all these baseball games and I saw kids with their dads and I never had that experience. That was very tough for me.”
Cazares was introduced to Eric Ayala who was around 21 years old at the time. Cazares said that their first meeting was tense.
“It was really weird for me,” he said. “But he seemed like a fun guy so that kind of eased the awkwardness.”
Their first trip together was to the Big Fresno Fair.
Cazares said that they hung out, played catch and every so often went to the movies. But mostly they just stayed in and talked about life.
“That’s what I needed,” Cazares said. “Those were good times for me to have.”
Cazares said he and Ayala talked about what to expect in Cazares’ teenage years. Cazares said he learned valuable lessons on how to handle peer pressure and how to stay away from the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“During our time together, he was a great mentor for me,” he said. “He was somebody I knew I could count on and somebody who modeled what it is to be a responsible adult.”
Ayala was taking courses at Fresno City College at the time, and he enrolled in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for extra credit in one of his classes.
Ayala was only supposed to be there for a semester. Instead, he stayed with the program for many years as a mentor for Cazares.
“He said it really was a life-changing experience for him,” Cazares said. “He really enjoyed it.”
Cazares went to Fresno State as criminology major and graduated in 2009.
He recently finished his masters in school counseling, and plans to work as a behavioral coach for students.
Cazares said he believes that his experience with Ayala being an important part of his life, and that is why he decided to start a career working with kids.
He said: “I see a lot of myself in the kids that I work with.”
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