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Dora Zúniga grew up poor in south Texas.
"My parents had a third-grade education and spoke little English," says Zúniga, the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County. "The poverty rate in that community was 60%, and the unemployment rate was 30%."
She says both her parents worked and did their best to raise their five children, but by sixth grade Zúniga was failing in school. It was a math teacher, also Mexican-American, who showed her a way out.
"He said he wanted me to be a tutor in a program for children of seasonal workers," she recalls. "I said sure. Then he told me I'd have to have all Bs or better. I said no problem. Then he said, 'So why are you failing all your classes?'"
A light switched on for her when he told her that it was perfectly okay to be a girl and a Mexican-American and still be a good student. She got her act together, brought her grades up, and became a peer tutor for the children of migrants. A few years later, she was the only one of her siblings to finish high school on schedule and go on to get a university degree.
"I have had the great benefit of having mentors throughout my life," she says.
Zúniga, who has been at the helm of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County for six years, hopes all children growing up poor and disadvantaged will get the same kind of encouragement from the adults in their lives. It fuels her passion for her job, which at its core is about matching kids with caring, supportive adults.
Schools and youth organizations have mentoring programs for kids, but Big Brothers Big Sisters is one of the oldest, founded as Big Brothers in 1901. The program started in Dane County in 1966.
It distinguishes itself by striving to create long-term relationships between mentors and children.
"We ask volunteers for at least a two-year commitment," Zúniga says. "But really, I want them for 10 years." Kids have different needs as they grow up, she notes, and having a stable relationship with an adult in addition to their parents is important at all stages.
Children who grow up in poverty, whose parents have little education and whose fathers are in jail, are very likely to be poor, undereducated and end up in trouble themselves. That's the pernicious cycle of poverty. But advocates say these same children can grow up to go to college, get a good job and create a stable family if someone steps up to intervene and break the cycle.
A study conducted by Harris International in 2009 on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters showed that children ("Littles") who were matched with mentors ("Bigs") were more likely to have four-year college degrees, an income of $75,000 or more, and stronger relations with spouses, children and friends when they became adults than children from similar backgrounds who were not involved in the program.
Even in a relatively affluent place like Dane County, poverty statistics are sobering. Nearly half of the children enrolled in Madison schools are from low-income families, and that number has increased by 60% since 2000, according to data compiled by Big Brothers Big Sisters.
"The fact is that we do not see poverty in Madison if we choose not to," Zúniga says. "The children we serve probably live in a two-bedroom apartment with four or five other kids. For many of our new Bigs, it can be shocking. Most of us have only seen poverty in the movies or TV. We don't realize that there is so much poverty here because we are all segregated by income."
She adds that it's tough being poor in Madison, where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,000 a month and parents may be making $8 an hour. She says she has the greatest respect for parents who enroll their children in the program.
"These parents love their children and are doing the absolute best they can with the resources they have. We have to respect these moms because they have the courage to come ask for help," she says.
Big Brothers Big Sisters invests a lot of time and effort in recruiting adult volunteers. Zúniga says it costs between $1,000 and $1,500 a year to support each match. Staff do extensive interviews, background and reference checks to produce a good match and then offer training to the adults. They also check in with both the mentors and the parents once a month. Much of the training and support focuses on helping mentors understand the cultural and economic differences between themselves and the children they are trying to help.
"For example, it may be hard for people to understand why a mother has four children by four fathers," Zúniga say. "That's not the norm in the middle class. But these are women who did not have access to health care when they began to have relationships. Most of us don't even know how much birth control pills cost because we have health insurance."
Zúniga says she has only one biological child, but feels like she has 1,000 more who have been Littles. She hopes more adults will step forward to work with the 700 children still on the agency's waiting list, but she says the number of matches they can support depends on the number of staff they can hire.
"We realize that not everyone can be a mentor, but, like all nonprofits, we do hope that people will support the work we do financially."
"I'm living proof that Big Brothers Big Sisters works," says Mark Rounds.
Now vice president of operations with the Boldt Company and a happily married father of two, Rounds, 52, grew up poor in Madison. His parents divorced when he was 4. His mother often worked two jobs, he rarely saw his father, and Rounds and his younger brother were often left to fend for themselves.
"There were nights [my mother] didn't come home," he says. "But I can't blame her for that. She had been a teenage mother. She was very young and wanted to go out and not always have the burden of kids. So, from the time I was 8 or so, I had to take care of myself and my younger brother. That's a lot of responsibility at that age. Many days were really tough."
During the summers, the boys went to live with their grandfather. When Rounds was 11, his grandfather died, and life became even more difficult. Then his mother got the boys a Big Brother, and his life changed dramatically.
After a brief match, his first Big was drafted and left for Vietnam. His next Big was Dan Gribbon, who later became the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters. It was the start of a long friendship that ended only when Gribbon died six years ago.
"He'd get me to practice and games for the Big Brothers football team. We'd talk. Dan was always working on some project around the house, and I'd get to help. His entire family adopted me, and we would go to his parents' cabin up north and go fishing. It was a second family, a real family, and showed me what life was like outside Allied Drive and outside of divorce."
These may sound like little things, but Rounds is convinced having a Big Brother changed his life.
"Dan was someone who got me away from the turmoil of my life," he says. He says Gribbon encouraged him to do well in school and go to college, and showed him a world he didn't even know existed. When his own son turned 21, Rounds took him on a tour of where he'd lived as a child.
"I grew up in places on Northport, south Madison and Allied Drive, some of Madison's poorest neighborhoods. It was an eye-opener for my son to see where I came from and to realize how fortunate he's been. I worked my butt off to give him the life I never had. I always had a drive to get out of that life, and I think Dan inspired that drive. I don't think I would have had the success I've had without that influence. I probably would have been on the other side of the shovel."
Rounds is not a mentor with the program but is an active volunteer nonetheless. He is helping plan a fundraising effort to establish a scholarship endowment for children in the program.
'I get as much as I give'
Kelly Hunter, a 34-year-old sales manager for an insurance company, has always been an ambitious woman who put her career first. But she went with a housemate to a Big Brothers Big Sisters bowling outing, and one of the children there asked her when she was going to become a mentor. She was stumped for an answer.
"I was single. I had the time. I've always been interested in working with children. I couldn't think of any reason not to," she says. The following day she called to volunteer. In the three and a half years she's been matched with Nytel Slaughter, 10, she's never regretted the decision.
"I am so impressed by this program because you can really see the impact of what you are doing. But, also, I get so much out of it myself. I definitely get as much as I give."
Hunter says volunteering as a mentor has given her a better perspective on life.
"Being a mentor is a little like investing money in a 401K. It's making an investment of time that fills your emotional cup. Doing this helps me see the lighter side of life and slow down to enjoy things."
Nytel is a member of a very large family - six children who range in age from seven months to 16 years, living with their mother and father. His mother, Nataki Brown-Williams, who herself had a Big when she was growing up in Chicago, turned to Big Brothers Big Sisters for help with the kids. Four of the children have been Littles.
"Big Brothers Big Sisters is one of the best things that's has ever happened to my family," Brown-Williams says, noting that her 14-year old was having trouble with school until he was matched with a mentor. "He's now an A-B student at Memorial."
Ask Nytel how he feels about having a mentor and he'll give you a big thumbs-up.
"I think it's really cool to get to do things like going kayaking and hiking at Devil's Lake," he says. Other highlights for him have been playing laser tag and going to Six Flags. But the greatest adventure of all was going to Virginia and Washington, D.C., when Hunter won a trip and took him along as her guest. He's proud to be the first in his family to travel by plane.
Nytel and Hunter have a lot of fun together, but she also makes sure he gets his homework done and even goes to parent-teacher conferences with his mother to make sure she knows how he's doing.
"I try to make everything we do together educational, whether it's playing laser tag or going grocery shopping," Hunter says.
Brown-Williams believes that having a Big has been a great benefit for her children.
"I think they are more mature and responsible than a lot of kids, and they have better manners."
"Nytel used to be a follower," Hunter says, "and now he's a leader. He's on the safety patrol at school, and he has learned how to stand up for himself and make the right decisions."
Hunter and Nytel have developed a strong bond, but so have Hunter and Brown-Williams.
"It's nice to have someone who is a third parent," Brown-Williams says, "but really I look at Kelly as a sister."
A family affair
Sometimes a Little Brother or Sister gets matched with an entire family. Victor Cruz, 11, is one of those lucky ones, and his Big Family, Hope and Dan Paulson and their children, Amber, 11 and Jake, 4, have been including him in family activities for a little over a year.
"Victor is part of a very large family, so it's nice for him to get a little more attention," Dan explains. "He has three brothers and three sisters; he's in the middle; his mother recently remarried. It's easy for a child to get lost in a big family like that." Two of Victor's sisters are also matched with mentors.
Big Brothers Big Sisters started matching children with entire families about eight years ago as a way to get more men involved as Bigs. Dora Zúniga says that more women than men volunteer to be mentors, and the organization has many boys who need a male role model on its waiting list.
Dan had been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters through his business, a strategic planning firm called InVision, but neither he nor Hope had previously been mentors in the program.
"I got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters because my business is all about helping businesses and organizations get measurable results," Dan says. "Big Brothers Big Sisters does show results from what they do, and we can see the impact it makes."
He says he probably would have volunteered as a Big when his own children were older, but the family match program made it possible to become more involved without sacrificing time with his kids.
"Victor is doing great, but he's a little shy, so we are working on getting him out of his shell a bit," Dan says. "He enjoys the special things we enjoy doing as a family - laser tag, movies, museums, and Packers and Badgers games. And he likes having other people to talk to."
Dan and Hope believe the experience benefits their own children.
"We think it's important for our children to be exposed to the challenges others have in life," Dan says. "We believe it is important for them to understand the importance of being involved in the community."
Anne Staniforth and her Little, Keraa McCants, were thrilled to be asked to appear for an interview about the Big Brother Big Sisters program on a Madison morning show a few years ago. But what the interviewer said at the end of the segment disappointed both of them.
"She said, 'Thank you for saving this child,'" Staniforth recalls. "But that's not the way it is at all! It's a two-way street. It's a true relationship. A true friendship. Keraa has given me so much love, and she's such a true friend."
Staniforth and Keraa started meeting weekly for lunch at Keraa's school when she was in fourth grade. This arrangement allows mentors to get involved without making the time commitment of the regular program. Both were going through a very rough time. Keraa's mother had died the previous year, and Anne's father had just died. A school counselor thought the two might help each other cope with their grief and suggested the match. It worked.
"That first year, there was a lot of crying and hand holding on both our ends," Staniforth says. Toward the end of the school year, when school-based matches end for the summer, they decided to stick together.
Staniforth had volunteered as a mentor for several years before she was matched with Keraa. It's a family thing - her husband is also a mentor, as are both of her grown daughters.
Keraa is now a poised and confident senior at East High School, an athlete, soprano soloist in the school choir, talented artist and a committed volunteer in her own right. She serves on a teen board that reviews grant proposals for programs for young people through United Way; she's a teaching assistant for East High's athletic director; she's a camp counselor for a week in the summer; and she and Staniforth volunteer as bell ringers for the Salvation Army.
Next fall, she will be the first in her family to enroll in a four-year college.
Keraa knows that things could have turned out very differently.
After her mother died, her father realized he would not be able to care for Keraa and her older sister, and the girls moved in with their grandmother. "He loved us, but he realized we needed to be in a safer environment," Keraa explains, noting that their father is still part of their lives.
All these wrenching changes were eased by a caring grandmother, a special teacher and Anne Staniforth.
"Seriously, I do not know where I'd be if I didn't have this," Keraa says. "I see a lot of kids at school who are doing all kinds of things they probably wouldn't do if they had somebody like Anne. She has helped me through so much."
As their grief passed, Staniforth and Keraa have enjoyed spending time together, whether it's been a special outing to Wisconsin Dells or just hanging out at Staniforth's house baking cookies. And Staniforth has encouraged Keraa to make education a priority, pushing her to take college prep courses, improve her grades and do community service. Last summer, she helped Keraa apply for and win a place in a college-level math class at Edgewood College, so she already has three college credits.
But it's been a two-way street. Keraa helps Staniforth, who has arthritis, around the house with chores that are difficult for her to do.
Keraa spent her winter break working on applications for college admission and financial aid. She hopes to enroll at either Edgewood or UW-Whitewater, where she will major in elementary education.
Their time with Big Brothers Big Sister will end when Keraa graduates next spring. But Staniforth says, "We will be friends forever."
[Editor's note: This story has been corrected with the correct spelling of Bob Gribbon.]