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THE GIFT OF TIME / Volunteers in Orange County

Their 'Big' Chance

With more adults seeking the rewards of being there--and more kids in need --Big Brothers/Big Sisters is growing.

September 29, 1998|JOHN CANALIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two years ago, Mark Roussey did a little soul-searching and decided his actions didn't match his beliefs. Make that inaction. He thought it was important to help others, but he hadn't worked it into his schedule.

Remembering a relative's volunteer effort, Roussey sought out the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County in Tustin. There, the Aliso Viejo man was matched with Al, a teenager with a speech disorder who was in need of a very patient mentor.

Cut to 1998. Al (Big Brothers doesn't release clients' last names) is now Roussey's bowling buddy, fishing companion and "another guy to do guy stuff with."

"What you do receive is lessons, life lessons, on understanding, patience and appreciating how truly lucky I, in particular, was to have a full family life and be given all the graces I was given," said Roussey, 35.

The multimedia and Internet consultant is one of a growing number of men and women volunteering to mentor kids in Orange County and elsewhere. It has meant Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County is helping nearly twice as many children as it did in 1992, serving 400 in this its 40th anniversary year.

It's a convergence of two trends, say agency directors. Increased rates of divorce and the growth in nontraditional families have generated a continuous flow of children in need of same-gender mentors. At the same time, a push to encourage responsible adults to mentor youths is sweeping the nation via public service announcements on radio and TV.

For Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County, it means more "littles" and more "bigs" are coming to the agency's doors in search of each other. To be sure, the youngsters still outnumber the available adults, especially boys.

"For every volunteer phone call, we'll get two calls from mothers wanting to enroll their children," said Jolene Felkner, public relations coordinator.

About 150 boys, ages 6 to 16, are on the waiting list. Some will wait up to a year.

"The bottom line is I never have enough Big Brothers," said Noly Guardamondo, program director for the agency. "This is a national problem. . . . There is always a shortage of men. I have more ladies than I do have girls, typically, and I have more boys than I do men."

The children come from a variety of family situations, living with one parent or the other, sometimes orphaned, in foster care or living with grandparents.

Though many guardians do their best to raise the children, a boy often needs to associate with a man; a girl, with a woman.

"It's hard growing up when you have sisters and a mom and you're a boy hitting your formative years [without a father present]," Guardamondo said. "It's nice to have a man, a role model. . . . It's nice to relate to someone who understands your point of view, who's been there, done that."

The typical Big Brother isn't just an athletic guy who wants to shoot hoops with the boys, agency officials said. Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, and plenty of young boys list their interests as art, music, literature and scholarship.

"Everybody has a need to feel love, to be wanted," Guardamondo said. "If it's not a parent, not a Big Brother, they're going to turn to others. And, unfortunately, there's not a lot of positives out there."

Although children are matched with same-gender mentors, those adults aren't intended as surrogate parents. The point is to give a child a role model. Still, friendships are formed that offer some parallels with relatives.

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Debra and Michael Loen serve as Big Brother and Big Sister to Hong, an 11-year-old girl from Santa Ana who came from Saigon about six years ago. He is 47; she's 49. They don't have children and see their relationship with Hong in a somewhat familial light.

"We're like grandparents" who take her to libraries, galleries, bowling, parks, missions and shopping, Debra Loen said. "We get to have fun and take her home."

It has helped to cement their own relationship too.

"I see Michael in a different light," she said. "It's made us closer. I've learned a lot of patience. I've learned [about] unconditional love."

Having a couple paired with a youngster is not the norm. It came about, however, because Debra Loen was matched with Hong two years ago to help the girl with English after she came to live with her disabled mother in Santa Ana. Michael Loen got hooked on helping, too, and filled out an application to become a Big Brother.

"The motto of this program is to just be a friend, just to be there for the child," Debra said. "Help her with her homework, conference with her teacher, rent musical instruments. We try to include her in our day-to-day life and support things her mother is able to do."

Hong appreciates the couple helping her with homework and the like, but her favorite part of the relationship is the outings.

"They're kind of fun, they take me to a lot of places, . . . to Sea World, the San Diego Zoo and stuff," Hong said. "They teach me how to swim."

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