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Filling a Void : Big Brothers and Sisters Provide Friendship

March 06, 1986|PATRICK MOTT

Cain McBrayer, Cathy Gallegos and Michael Evans are members of one of the nation's most prominent youthful minority groups. They, along with an estimated 13 million other American children--a million of them in California--live in homes with only one parent. And in most of those homes that parent is the mother.

What such census statistics don't show is the void left by the absent parent--the lack of male influence on a boy, the lack of the extra bit of friendship for a girl, the lack of an example of a harmonious marriage .

For these three Orange County children, however, a part of the emotional support that disappeared when their fathers died or moved elsewhere is being provided by volunteer men and women who have been matched with them through Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County.

Perhaps the organization's most traditional matchings involve men who are paired with boys without a father living at home. Since 1981, however, pairings also have been made between women and girls through the Big Sister program and, since 1980, between children of both sexes and married couples as part of a program called Couples for Kids.

For Bill Tornquist, his match with Cain McBrayer, 15, a Costa Mesa High School student, is what might be called a second-generation pairing. Tornquist, 25, a full-time caseworker for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County who is studying for a license in marriage and family counseling, was himself a "little brother" at age 10.

"My Big Brother is now my attorney," he said. "And he was at my wedding. It was partly because of him that I decided to become a Big Brother myself. I remembered all the positive things that happened to me, and I wanted to do that for someone else."

Being accepted as a Big Brother, said Tornquist, involved a screening process that included an orientation, an application, three character references, three psychological tests, two interviews and fingerprinting, all of which was reviewed by a screening committee.

When the screening is complete, the information gleaned in the testing is made available to the parent of the child, said Jo Alexander, the executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County. The parent may then agree to the match or veto it, she said.

Controversy has arisen in recent years over the application of the screening process. In 1982, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County settled for an undisclosed amount of money out of court with the family of a boy who was sexually molested by his assigned big brother five years before. And in 1984 another Orange County big brother was convicted of molesting his little brother. He later received a suspended sentence.

In both cases, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County defended the screening process, calling the incidents rare errors.

More recently, a suit was filed against Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles last December by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a bisexual man who claimed he had been systematically excluded for consideration as a big brother because of his sexual preferences.

While the Big Brothers organization lists a national policy of nondiscrimination, "individual agencies have the right to set up their own policies," said Alexander, and the policy of the Los Angeles agency bars homosexuals and bisexuals, she added.

In Orange County, however, the national policy is followed, she said. "I know of two homosexual men who came through the program here," she said, "and one wasn't placed because he didn't pass a part of the screening."

The other man passed, she said, but was rejected by the boy's parent.

As with all Big Brothers, Tornquist was asked to commit to one year with his little brother and spend an average of four to six hours a week with him.

Anyone who is at least 20 years old, has lived in Orange County for at least six months, has worked at least three months at his or her current job and has valid auto insurance is eligible to become a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Tests also are given to the children to determine their needs and interests, said Tornquist. Based on the compatibility of those interests, as well as geography, the matches are made. "It helps if you don't live too far away from each other," he said.

McBrayer, who was 3 when his father died, had just turned 10 when his mother asked if he would be interested in the program.

"At first I was a little nervous," he said, "but my nerves went away when Bill started coming over. It was great to do things with him. If I didn't have him, I never would have gone to some of the places he took me to. He helped me feel more positive about myself."

Tornquist said the relationship is less like father and son than two friends.

"I try to make him feel like we're equals," he said. "I may be older, but we're really peers. We're buddies. Over the last six years he's become a best friend."

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