- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

ST. LOUIS, Mo. - Marico Morgan has been waiting to meet a Big Brother through a mentoring program since 1999.

The soft-spoken child lives with his grandmother, who is his guardian, in a St. Louis duplex. Alma Buckley signed up two granddaughters and her grandson for the program more than five years ago. She was seeking new, positive relationships in their lives, while Marico just wanted someone to play and watch sports with him and maybe help him with homework.

The girls were matched years ago, but Marico, 13, still holds out hope.

“We have 600 or so boys on our waiting list, and we’ve stopped taking applications,” said Vicki Biggs, a spokeswoman for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. The organization has far fewer girls, about 265, waiting for a Big Sister, though that waiting list is long enough that it also has been temporarily closed.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is the oldest and largest youth mentoring organization in the country, matching adults with a child 5 to 18 years old usually in a one-on-one relationship.

The program has an excellent reputation, backed by research, for helping children. The nonprofit Public/Private Ventures found that children matched with an adult through the program for a year are 52 percent less likely to skip school or 46 percent less likely to start using drugs.

It’s not clear whether boys are on longer waiting lists for the mentors than girls nationwide; the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America headquarters in Philadelphia does not collect centralized data on the numbers of children on waiting lists. It does have ongoing efforts to recruit male volunteers, featuring celebrity spokesmen and partnerships with corporations and others, such as a national black fraternity, to find more mentors.

The eastern Missouri waiting list for both boys and girls has been closed since February, because the agency didn’t want to disappoint families it couldn’t serve immediately. The closed waiting list does not apply to children who have a parent in prison, who are still being matched through a program called Amachi.

Agencies in Missouri said they don’t think families should be discouraged by the waits. Several offices plan group outings that children can take part in, before their one-on-one mentor is located. In parts of the state, college students, couples or other volunteers meet, sometimes with a few children at a time, until the permanent match is found.

There’s no magic number for how long a boy will wait for a match, though a wait as long as Marico’s is unusual. Many children are matched quickly, within several weeks. In eastern Missouri, boys can wait an average of about two years.

Ms. Biggs said the eastern Missouri office works daily to try to increase its numbers of volunteers, publicizing the program through volunteer drives and in its newsletter. She couldn’t address why men don’t volunteer for the mentoring program in the same numbers as women.

But the largest Big Brothers chapter in the country had some thoughts on the matter.

“We have more active Big Brothers here than anywhere else in the world,” said John Pearson, president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers of Massachusetts Bay, which serves 100 cities and towns in the Boston area.

The chapter has about 1,200 boys waiting for a Big Brother, he said. They wait, on average, about a year.

Mr. Pearson said there are unique challenges to seeking men as volunteers.

One is breaking through stereotypes. “I think in our society, in general, the assumption is the majority of child rearing … falls on women,” he said.

“Very often, we don’t use the language for men that tells them we want them to be there,” he said.

Mr. Pearson said strong candidates often consider volunteering, but decide otherwise if they get the wrong recruiting message.

“You don’t have to be Michael Jordan. You don’t have to be Dr. Phil,” he said. “You don’t have to be a superstar. You have to be a good person.”

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