Big and Little teach each other

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Connie George
Exemplifying the enriching intergenerational relationships that can form as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Desert program is the one that has been forged between Big Brother Larry Galuppo, 76 and his Little Brother Landon, 17. The two were matched 10 years ago and have developed a family-like bond in the course of learning life lessons from each other.
Photo by Joanne Leinow

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Desert (BBBSD) is finding older adult mentors to be essential to its mission of guiding youth to reach their best potential. But according to participants of both age groups, just who is gaining the most from the experience is hard to say.

“This is a mentoring program,” said Larry Galuppo, 76, who has been Big Brother for 10 years to Little Brother Landon, 17. “But in the years I’ve been with Landon, I’ve been wondering who’s mentoring who.”

Big Sister Nettie White, 71, shared the same rewarding impression of her now four-year experience with Little Sister Ahidaly, 15. “Because I get so much out of it, sometimes I wonder if I get more out of it than my Little Sister does.”

BBBSD Executive Director Judy Tobin May said such unexpected reactions are common among adults who volunteer as “Bigs,” presuming when they first come into the program that the benefits flow only one way — to the “Littles.” But as bonds develop between the carefully matched duos, she said, youth are inspired by the sincere support of their adult mentor, while adults are rewarded by their own growth while participating in their youth’s overall development.

Bigs have told BBBSD staff that among the benefits they receive from participating in the mentoring program are helping to change the life of a child, introducing a child to new experiences, witnessing their Little’s grades or social behaviors improve, and everything they learn about their own strengths in the process.

At least half of the BBBSD’s Big Brothers and Sisters are age 50 and older, with some in their 80s, May said. Often families seeking a mentor for their child will specifically request an older Big because of his or her increased availability and the added life perspective such a person can provide.

“Mature adults bring a wealth of experience to a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters,” she said. “Many have raised their own families and they have been successful in business. Now they are retired, or semi-retired, and have more time and the interest in giving back and spending one-on-one time with a child.”

“Many of the children that we serve don’t have a relationship with a grandparent-type person in their life,” May added, “so the children are gaining so much from spending time with a volunteer who is more mature.”

Larry and Landon

According to Big Brother Galuppo —  who registered with BBBSD after discovering that a retirement built around playing golf was less satisfying than he expected — patience, a sensitive ear and not acting like a parent are critical to providing a Little with the most support.

“Stay away from parenting words, like ‘should,’ ‘ought’ or ‘when I was your age,’” he said. “Don’t act like a parent, and truly listen to keep the conversation alive with pertinent questions.”

“When I was matched with my Big Brother Larry at age 8,” Landon said, “I did not fit the stereotypical interests of a young boy. I was not adept at sports, I had a learning disability, and my favorite topics were art and a love of roses. My academic achievements have a direct correlation to how Larry sees me. He believes I can achieve anything I set my mind to, and I am motivated to overcome any obstacle.”

When Landon learned upon meeting Galuppo that his new Big Brother was a member of the Desert Rose Society, a bond was immediately made.

Trish Duarte, Landon’s mother, said that additional similarities between the two, including both being residents of La Quinta, have supported their Big and Little match.

“When Landon was younger, he always had a grown-up soul,” she said. “They had a lot in common, both being patient and gentle. Larry, even though generations older, never talked down to Landon, but always treated him like an equal.”

The two have traded roses and discussions of horticulture on many of their visits, which include weekly lunches as well as fishing trips and outings to museums, libraries and movies.

Galuppo lets Landon select the outings and, as a result, has attended a fair share of teen flicks he admits he wouldn’t normally go to on his own, but which have taught him a lot about today’s youth. In addition, witnessing the world through Landon’s interests has taught Galuppo new ways of viewing the world.

BBBSD’s Big and Little matches are officially completed when the youth turn 18, as Landon will do this summer, before he departs for college in the fall to study commercial interior design. But the two have already made plans to remain in each other’s lives.

When the duo reached their five-year mark as Big and Little, Galuppo said, “Landon told me, ‘I would like to be your Little Brother for life,’ and I said, ‘I feel the same way, Landon. It’s a deal.’”

Nettie White, 71, became Big Sister to her Little Sister Ahidaly, 15, four years ago after a career working on behalf of children. At least 50 percent of Big Brothers and Big Sisters are over the age of 50.
Courtesy Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Desert

Nettie and Ahidaly

White registered with BBBSD after a career spent working with children. She had been a behavioral specialist for the Pasadena school system and continues to be a court-appointed child advocate.

“I’ve learned a lot from her,” she said of her Little Sister Ahidaly, including about the challenges of being a teenager, “and hopefully I’ve been able to giver her some food for thought.” Both Indio residents, White said sharing their cultural heritage has also bonded them — she is African-American, while Ahidaly is Latino.

Their visits have included outings to tennis matches and fashion exhibits, as well as craft-making, gardening and cooking.

On one visit in which cooking was the plan, White put her great-great-grandmother’s apron around Ahidaly and told her the history of the garment and the woman who had worn it.

White said that when her Little Sister shares some of her fondest memories of their time together, the apron story is mentioned.

“We have close bonds,” Ahidaly said. “I trust her with all my personal stuff just like a real big sister. Nettie is like family to me and is always going to be part of my life.”

According to Ahidaly’s mother, Maria Campos, her daughter was struggling in school and getting into trouble before she was matched with White through BBBSD.

“Nettie has over the years talked with Ahidaly about her behavior and has kept her on track. She has always been there to talk with her and listen to her. Now Ahidaly’s in the 9th grade and on track to continue her education beyond high school.”

“Children of today need healthy role models,” White said, “and someone to guide them, to trust and to have confidence in.”

Making a Big difference

BBBSD served 412 children in 2012, and has a ready-to-match list of more youth in need of Big Brothers and Sisters, all between the ages of 6 and 14. Men are especially needed since there are so many Little Brothers awaiting mentors. The program requires a presence in the child’s life of at least four to eight hours per month for 12 months.

Mentor registration requires a full background check and an assessment interview to determine the best compatibility for both Big and Little.

“What we’re hoping for is that when we put these matches together, we are creating friendships that last for life,” said BBBSD’s Partnership Development Director Joanne Leinow.

For more information on becoming part of BBBSD, call (760) 568-3977 or visit www.BBBSDesert.org.