Yorkers mentor kids through Big Brothers, Big Sisters

Greg Gross

Jay Brenneman and his two "little brothers" traded playful jabs and as they sat around the kitchen table tossing Uno cards onto the pile.

"I have to take four cards? I was ready to win," Brenneman chirped as he reluctantly picked up four Uno cards. "I obviously don't know the right strategy."

A couple of rounds later, and with Brenneman holding more cards than anyone else, the game mercifully came to an end.

"I won fair and square," Lorenzo Alston, the 9-year-old who prefers to be called Rizo, chimed in.

It was just another evening at the Red Lion home of Rizo and his brother, 12-year-old Latrell, with their "big brother."

Big brother: Brenneman, 54, of West Manchester Township, became a mentor to Latrell in August 2014 through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of York & Adams Counties and, less than a year later, also became a big brother to Rizo when his previous big left the program.

"Since he (Rizo) was sneaking along with everything we did, we just made it official," Brenneman said. "It's been working out well."

Brenneman, whose wife has been a big sister for 10 or 12 years, was named the local office's Big Brother of the Year, and Samantha Dubbs was named Big Sister of the Year, said Mike Smith, executive director of the York/Adams office. Both will be nominated for statewide and possibly nationwide honors.

But no one becomes a big for the recognition. Most join up simply to give a child some guidance to a better life.

"A lot of our volunteers are changed as well," Smith said.

January is National Mentoring Month, and Thursday is Thank Your Mentor Day.

Bigs wanted:  The local Big Brothers Big Sisters office has about 60 active matches, but officials are looking for additional volunteers to become mentors to the roughly 38 children on a waiting list, Smith said.

Potential bigs have to first apply then go through an interview process and reference and background checks in order to be matched with a child, who also has to go through an interview process. Children in the program range in age from 6 to 14 and age out at 18 or when they graduate from high school.

Once matched, a big is encouraged to do two to four visits, each lasting two to four hours, every month, said Smith, who got his start in the program as a Big Brother while attending York College.

"It's a commitment. But these guys and gals need support and some guidance," said York County Commissioner Doug Hoke, who became a Big Brother in 2005, before he was elected to office. "I hope they get some volunteers."

One misconception is that being a big is a costly endeavor. The local office supplies monthly calendars listing free or low costs events happening locally for bigs. Including a little in a big's everyday life, such as going out to eat, taking them to events in the community or just hanging out together, is encouraged, Smith said.

The program also aims to help children before they have run-ins with the law and become part of the juvenile criminal justice system.

"We try to reach children before they make poor choices in life," Smith said.

PHOTOS: Big Brother mentors two brothers

Continued contact: Once a bond between a big and a little is formed, it sometimes lasts a lifetime.

Hoke and his once little brother, Elijah Klinicke, have maintained a friendship even though Klinicke has aged out of the program and is now going to school out of state.

"You meet somebody and you hope to have a good influence on their life," Hoke said. "I think I had a good influence on his life."

Hoke said he hopes to become a big brother to another child.

Adventures: In the year and a half or so that Brenneman's been involved in the lives of Rizo and Latrell, they've gone on various adventures.

There was the time they went sailing in the Chesapeake Bay with other bigs and littles. The trio couldn't catch a wind and were left motionless on the water. Then there was the time they took a train into Washington, D.C., to visit the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.

"The Baltimore aquarium" was what the unusually quiet Rizo said was his favorite trip.

But not all adventures are trips to fun places. Brenneman is teaching the boys the necessity of doing odd jobs around the house and getting a little dirty in the process. Latrell and Rizo have helped him clean the yard and fix a gate at the boys' former home.

Rizo's and Latrell's family recently moved to Red Lion from York City, and Brenneman, who works in the town, has been showing the two boys around to points of interest, such as the park, library and barber shop, and showed them the best walking route to school.

Sometimes, though, the trio spends their hours together playing games. Chess is one they particularly enjoy.

"And because there's two of them, I have to play both of them at once," Brenneman said. "It's tough."

To learn more about the Big Brothers Big Sisters of York & Adams Counties, or to become a big, call (717) 843-0051, or go to bbbsyorkadams.org

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.