- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

MITCHELL, S.D. (AP) - Playing tic-tac-toe while waiting for their food at Perkins is a favorite activity of 13-year-old Carissa Vobr and her mentor, Jean Turner.

The duo makes a trip to Perkins at least once a month and it’s become a sort-of tradition for them in the past three years, when they first became matched through the Big Friend-Little Friend mentoring program.

The Daily Republic (https://bit.ly/2kTDQlq ) reports that the mentoring program is one-of-a-kind in the Mitchell area and matches adults with at-risk children in the community to build confidence and social skills. The program interviews mentors and mentees and then, based on their compatibility, makes a match.

Once Carissa and Turner were matched in March nearly three years ago, the first time they “hung out” was at Perkins. And it was here where they discovered their love for tic-tac-toe.

“And if you give Carissa the option of a million things to do, she will pick Perkins every single time,” Turner said Thursday night.

Carissa and Turner are one of 45 matches within the program, according to Big Friend-Little Friend Executive Director Jean Haley.

The program began in April 2010, Haley said, when she looked at area kids and the choices they were making. That confirmed the community needed a mentorship program. She researched other communities in South Dakota and noticed Mitchell was one of the only communities its size that didn’t have a mentoring program.

So she kicked off the program, and in the first year had five matches. Now it’s grown exponentially, and Haley said they’ve had nearly 50 matches.

Of the current matches, Haley said five have been together for more than five years, and another six that have been together for at least two years.

Carissa is the second match that Turner has had since joining the program six years ago. And she still keeps in contact with her first match, who is now in high school and “grew out” of the program.

With her two successful matches, Turner said, it makes such a difference in both her and her mentees’ lives.

“There are so many kids that need that role model in their life,” Turner said. “Their parents might be busy and working a couple jobs and if you have the time to give back, it’s just a really fulfilling thing to do.”

All of the mentors are volunteers, Haley said, and the group reaches out to service groups, churches and anybody willing to volunteer with Big Friend-Little Friend.

But even with all of the recruitment efforts, Haley said Big Friend-Little Friend always needs more volunteers - specifically men.

Right now, according to Haley, there are six boys that are waiting for a mentor and some have been waiting “quite a while.”

“It is extremely rewarding,” Haley said. “I always tell the mentors that you are spending time with them now, but the time you’re spending will impact that child’s life forever. The kids aren’t going to realize the impact that their mentors have made until they are adults and they start to look back and think ‘Wow.’ “

Every month, Big Friend-Little Friend puts on an activity for the matches, and on Thursday the group got together for a pool party at the Comfort Inn in Mitchell. It was extra special, Haley said, because Thursday was National Thank Your Mentor Day. So the “littles” spent time filling out thank-you cards for their “bigs.”

On top of the monthly event, the group is also gearing up for its annual fundraiser Saturday called the Winter Escape, which takes place 6 p.m. at the Village Bowl. The event will include dinner, bowling, casino play, raffles, auctions and a chicken drop contest, Haley said. All of the money raised is used for activities throughout the year for matches. General admission tickets can be purchased for $20 before Jan. 21 and are $25 at the door.

“It’s the mentor spending one-on-one time with them but we also do the match activities and give kids the opportunity to be with other kids and have fun and kind of forget about the other stuff that they’re trying to deal with in their life,” Haley said.

Haley said typically matches are required to spend an hour together once per week, but oftentimes the mentors spend multiple hours together in the community. The duo can do whatever, whether that’s going to the park, ice skating or catching a movie, Haley said.

This is where the “matching process” is very important, Haley said, so they can find common interests between the “big” and the “little.”

For Todd Stickler and his “little,” Miles Hughes, they couldn’t have had a better match. The two have been paired for a little more than a year, and they’ve had a lot of fun, according to Stickler and Hughes.

For 12-year-old Miles, his favorite activity is to go to the Recreation Center in Mitchell and shoot hoops.

“He always wants to (play) basketball,” Stickler said with a laugh. “And he beats me - half the time at least, if I cheat.”

Stickler and Miles have also built shelves, cabinets and other items. As an electrician, Stickler has also spent time showing Hughes some wiring.

For Miles, this is not his first mentor. He’s been involved with the program for several years and has been matched several times, but he’s had the most fun with his first match and now with Stickler.

“It’s made it better,” Miles said about the impact Big Friend-Little Friend has had on his life.

And Stickler agrees.

Stickler first joined the program a year ago and was matched immediately with Miles. He learned about the program through Haley at church. Stickler said his children are now grown up and live far away, along with his grandkids, so this provided the perfect opportunity to spend time with someone else.

“It’s just as much fun for the mentor as it is for the little friend. You get a good match and you like things you can do together,” Stickler said. ” . I’ve told that to Miles, but that’s the best thing of my life and he’s right up there.”

___

Information from: The Daily Republic, https://www.mitchellrepublic.com


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