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Posted: July 30, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Unsung heroes: mentors help children in need

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As part of their 50th anniversary celebration and legacy event, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta has launched ‘Atlanta’s Biggest Role Model’ to honor community-nominated individuals who have dedicated their time and efforts to inspire the youth in their community.

Community members in 12 metro counties, which includes Rockdale County, can nominate a teacher, coach, foster parent, minister or a friend who motivates, inspires and serves the youth. This will be the first time in its 50-year tenure the BBBSMA will be celebrating individuals who are not associated with BBBSMA.

“Every day, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta encounters and works with unsung heroes — men and women who go the extra mile to ensure the best for our local youth,” said Janice McKenzie-Crayton, CEO of BBBSMA, in a press release. “It’s our way of honoring the big role that everyday individuals play in making our community better.”

Nominations are currently being accepted until Aug. 6. Individuals will have to nominate their contender and provide details about his or her commitment to youth and volunteer services. BBBSMA and its board of directors will then choose two honorees who will be commended at the organization’s annual Legacy Awards Gala on September 11. Nominations are to be submitted to biggestrolemodel@bbbsatl.org.

BBBSMA, an affiliate of the national organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, served more than 3,200 children from ages 6 to 18 in 2009. The organization provides one-on-one mentoring, primarily for children of single-parent families. Children are referred to the program by parents, grandparents, teachers and guidance counselors.

However, demand for mentors has grown substantially over the years, with the number of children outpacing the amount of volunteers and resources available to meet their needs; more than 20 children in Rockdale County alone are in need of mentors.

The organization hopes to reduce the number of children on the waiting list - some stay on the list for as long as three years - by launching a vigorous campaign to engage more volunteers and supporters.

A rewarding experience
Brian Vinson of Atlanta has spent the last three years as a mentor to 14-year-old Stephen Palmer. Both now share a relationship most siblings would envy.

Palmer, like many children in the country, faced a challenging home life and was having a tough time dealing with his situation. But with the guidance and attention Vinson provided over the years, Palmer has been able to come into his own.

“He was always a bright student, but what I have noticed is that he has come out of his shell in the last three years,” Vinson said. “He’s become very outgoing, loves to dance, and is much more talkative and social. We did an interview a couple of weeks back and it took me off guard when he said he could be himself around me, without peer pressure or demands from friends and parents.”

Vinson and Palmer spend their time hanging out and going to places like Atlanta Rocks, carnivals, car and bike shows and Six Flags. Sometimes Palmer would just ride along when Vinson ran errands.

“Sometimes we just get in the car and go and see where what turns up,” Vinson said. “I try to mix it up with some educational activities, so we’ll go to museums and libraries as well. It’s suggested we should just do activities that don’t cost anything, because it’s not about doing extravagant things; it’s about time spent together. But he’s such a bright kid, I don’t mind.”

The program will be essentially over when Palmer graduates high school, but most relationships continue on past that, Vinson said.
Along with the outdoor activities, Vinson helps play a father figure role for Palmer by teaching some basic lessons in manhood such as tying a tie and changing a tire.

“There’s just not enough mentors out there for these young children who need guidance,” Vinson said. “The organization is constantly promoting (itself) to find mentors. Once you do show interest, there is an extremely thorough background and security check and long interview process just to be sure they’re matching responsible, safe adults and creating a good environment.

With Palmer entering ninth grade at Benjamin E. Mays High School, Vinson hopes to get Palmer involved in karate classes and other engaging activities throughout the school year.

“The experience has been very positive and very rewarding and I would recommend it to everybody,” Vinson said. “I learned just as much from him as he did from me. Youngsters are continually surprised at how bright they are and how connected they are to the world. And he keeps me tuned in to everything that’s happening from his perspective in pop culture. Plus, I like the outings because it almost gives adults a chance to be a kid again. It’s just a great way to give up yourself.”

For more information about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, inclduing how to nominate an individual, volunteer opportunities or how to donate to the 50th Anniversary Fund, visit www.BBBSatl.org or call (404) 601-7000.

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