Big Brothers Big Sisters limited by lack of funds

CHAMPAIGN - When Maelin McDonald saw a commercial announcing a new Big Brothers Big Sisters group in Champaign, she immediately went to the phone and signed up her children.
She and her husband were eager for their children to have mentors who could help with homework, play ball or just be good role models.
That was four years ago. Though her three younger children had Big Sisters for a time, the women later moved away. And her 14-year-old twin boys are still without a match.
?They've been on the waiting list since they've been in it,? she said this week.
The problem is not a lack of volunteers, said Corey Burrows, director of program services for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Champaign County. Besides the 44 children on a waiting list for its one-on-one mentoring program, the group has 22 volunteer mentors waiting for a match.
?The problem is that the funding isn't coming in as quickly as the volunteers. It's not allowing us to get enough staff to handle the demand for the program,? he said.
Effective mentoring requires adequate supervision, but the group's case managers are already overloaded with 85 matches when they probably should be handling 60 or 65, he said.
?We've pretty much had to put a hold on accepting any more volunteers, or matching any more children, which is a shame,? Burrows said. ?We've got waiting volunteers and waiting kids. We're just afraid if we plunge ahead and keep doing it, we're going to sacrifice quality for quantity. And that leads to matches not staying together.?
The group hopes to raise $50,000 at its main fund-raiser later this month, the ?Bowl For Kids' Sake? April 25-26 at GT's Western Bowl in Champaign. The money would help support current matches and some expansion, officials said.
Founded in 1904, Big Brothers Big Sisters has more than 500 agencies nationwide. The Champaign office, created in 1999, is part of a five-county agency that also operates in McLean, Macon, Piatt and DeWitt counties.
Burrows said the McLean County chapter, which includes another volunteer-rich college community in Bloomington-Normal, had similar ?growing pains? when it was established - lots of volunteers and not enough money. But it now supervises 214 matches, he said.
?Hopefully, in the next few years funding will catch up to the demand? in Champaign, too, he said.
Champaign County has ?quite a few? other mentoring programs, and Big Brothers has tried to collaborate with them, Burrows said. But many are really tutoring or after-school programs, or meet only during school hours, he said. Few focus on one-to-one relationships in which children and volunteers can meet outside the school or home, allowing them to build a strong relationship, he said.
?We kind of came into the community to fill that void,? he said.
A 1992-93 national study showed children with Big Brothers or Big Sisters were 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to use alcohol, and 52 percent less likely to skip school.
Supervision of matches is crucial, Burrows said. Research shows that when mentors stay with a child for six months or less, ?the child actually does worse than if they never had a mentor.?
Most of the children come from single-parent homes and may have had adults move in and out of their lives before, he said. ?We want to provide stability, something they can count on, something that's going to be there for a longer-term relationship.?
Kory Langhofer, 22, and Dustin Watson, 13, have been matched for nearly four years, and by all accounts they've developed a close relationship. Dustin has been invited along on Langhofer family vacations, weddings and holiday celebrations.
But it took time - probably nine months - before the two built a comfortable, open relationship, said Langhofer, a UI senior originally from Bloomington. Though they had fun together, Dustin was ?very, very reserved,? giving the briefest of answers to Langhofer's attempts to make conversation. Gradually, though, he'd talk a bit more, and now ?you can't make him be quiet,? Langhofer joked.
?It took a lot longer than I thought it would to get a big element of trust there,? he said.
Still, he never thought about quitting. ?It doesn't change the basic fact that it's fun spending time with a little brother. You are making a difference.?
Dustin's mother has seen the change in her son, both socially and academically.
?I think it has been wonderfully helpful for him,? said Angel Watson of Rantoul. ?He's more outgoing, he likes to do different things, try different things.?
Watson said her ex-husband lives in Texas and has never been very involved in his son's life. When she moved to Rantoul from Danville, a friend recommended she contact Big Brothers Big Sisters.
?It's a fantastic program,? she said.
Dustin said he enjoys spending time with his Big Brother, whether it's going out for Asian food, bowling or playing video games at Langhofer's house in Urbana.
?Before I met him, I wasn't that good at school and stuff. After I met him, I started doing a lot better,? said Dustin, who attends Eater Junior High School in Rantoul.
?He's real easy to talk to. With some people, when you're trying to have a conversation, they'll interrupt and tell their side of the story. He doesn't do that. He'll just let you talk and talk and talk.?
Langhofer is headed to Yale Law School in the fall, but he and Dustin predict they'll stay in touch. Dustin is already planning a visit out East.
?It's really weird leaving someone like this,? Langhofer said. ?I feel responsible for him. That took me by surprise. I was kind of expecting to hang out with someone and have fun. There's a lot more responsibility than I expected.?

You can reach Julie Wurth at 217-351-5226 or via e-mail at jwurth@news-gazette.com.

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