Mentors connect with Tri-county children

Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor Claudia Thornton, right, and her “Little Sister,” Ny’Asia, 11, walk Bella toward Atlas Canine Recreation Park.

Big Sister Mary Lou Sloan played pick-up sticks and jacks with her “Little,” 7-year-old Mya, during the Wildwood Elementary School lunch break. After lunch outside on Aug. 27, the second-grader read aloud to Sloan. The Village of Lynnhaven resident has been serving as Mya’s Big Sister for about a year through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay program in Sumter County. The program, which has been active in Sumter since 2015, is reaching out for more volunteers, said Karen Kampel, director of partnerships for BBBS in Sumter County.  Other local organizations, such as Dads for a Day and Sophisticated Gents of Florida, also are seeking more mentors to work with youth in the tri-county area.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay

In 2017, BBBS received a grant from the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, a Senior Corps program of The Corporation for National and Community Service. The grant enabled BBBS to recruit and match 75 volunteers age 55 and older with Sumter County children, said Kampel, of the Village of Fenney. The agency has made about 50 matches, but needs at least 25 more volunteers before 2020 to keep the grant.

Currently, there are about 27 children from Sumter County on the waiting list to be matched with volunteers, said Donna Ledford, coordinator for the RSVP grant.

BBBS matches adult volunteers, “Bigs,” with children, “Littles,” between the ages of 5 and 13 years. In the school-based program, volunteers meet their “Littles” at their schools, and in the community-based program, volunteers can meet at their homes or other locations, said Jack Sheppard, managing director of marketing and partnership development for BBBS of Tampa Bay.

Extensive interviews are conducted with the Bigs and Littles to ensure a good match based on their interests, experiences and personalities.

While Sloan serves in the school-based program, Big Sister Claudia Thornton volunteers through the community-based program. During the school year, Thornton helps her “Little,” 11-year-old Ny’Asia, with homework, but teaches her how to sew and ice cupcakes in the summer.

Thornton likes the idea that she not only helps Ny’Asia, but also gives some support to the child’s mother who works two jobs and goes to school.

“I’m in this for the long haul,” she said.

As for Sloan, “the whole thing is a joy to see [Mya] with a big smile every week,” she said.

On Sept. 11, the group is holding an orientation and training session at 1 p.m. at the Belvedere Library at 325 Belvedere Blvd., The Villages.

If interested volunteers cannot make the orientation, they should contact Kampel at KarenK@bbbstampabay.org or 727-480-8381. More information is available at bbbstampabay.org/be-a-big.

Sophisticated Gents of Florida

Helping young boys is a mission of the Sophisticated Gents of Florida, a men’s group in The Villages. The mentoring program is just one of its outreach programs to Central Florida, said President Tom Glass.

Since its founding in 2005, the group has sought to build mentor relationships that help students from low-income communities with their education and goals. Originally, the group sought to mentor young, African American men, but has since expanded its outreach.

Members are trained to work as mentors. Some members become mentors through the group, while others, like Lamont Harris, of the Village of St. Charles, work through a mentoring program of New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages.

“Someone needs to pay attention and show [the kids] that they care,” he said.

He meets with his mentee, Kijuan Patterson, 16, about once a week during the school year. Harris is proud of Kijuan’s progress in the two years he’s worked with him. He has worked on his attitude this year, Harris said. 

“He’s learned to think before he reacts,” Harris said.

Fellow member James Napier has mentored with the group for about four years. He said he needed that relationship growing up as a young African American man.

“I want to give my mentees the benefit of my life’s experience,” the Village of Lake Deaton resident said.

On Aug. 29, Napier, two other members and their mentees attended a symposium sponsored by Leesburg High School for about 50 invited students. Napier accepted four more mentees into the program.

Now, he said, the group’s leadership will let members know that, with an increase of mentees, more mentors are needed.

Napier also met with his newest mentees, seniors he already knew through school activities.

“They’re upstanding young men and I know I can count on them to be good examples for our other mentees,” he said.

The group always needs more mentors and encourages other members to get involved.

For more information, see sophisticatedgentsfl.org.

Dads for a Day

Dads for a Day, a nonprofit, faith-based organization, seeks to give one-on-one mentoring for at-risk boys living in fatherless homes, said Curtis Ostrander, president and founder of the group.

The 3-year-old group is an outreach ministry of Fairway Christian Church. All mentors are Christian men who have raised families of their own, are fully trained and have submitted to a background check. They meet with their mentees at least once a week.

“The demand for our mentoring program has been phenomenal,” Ostrander said.

To meet that demand, the program has become available to other Christian churches, with the option of becoming independent chapters. In June, four new churches, including one in the Philippines, joined.

“Due to the great response, we have increased our staffing to accommodate the continued growth of our program and welcome Christian churches throughout the country to join us in serving the fatherless boys in their communities,” Ostrander said

Dan Walters has served as a mentor for two years with the group.

The 77-year-old has built a relationship with Jordan Willie, 15, during that time. He remembers that, once, Jordan wouldn’t even look him in the eyes.

Now, the two talk about everything.

“If I can help one young man turn out to be a better person, it’s all worth it,” said Walters, of the Village of Summerhill.

Fellow mentor Mark Ellis has worked with Gavin Tompkins, 15, for about a year and a half, and has enjoyed teaching Gavin to drive as well as seeing him mature.

Over the summer, Gavin expressed an interest in ministry, so Ellis is taking Gavin to different churches. Gavin recently moved to Ocala and is missing his former school friends at Leesburg High School, but is doing fine, said Ellis, of the Village of La Belle. Gavin can count on him for support during his transition, Ellis said.

The organization is recruiting its next group of mentors and boys. Interested volunteers, single moms or people who would like to support the group financially can go to the group’s website at dadsforaday.org.

Laura Sikes is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or laura.sikes@thevillagesmedia.com.