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Too Many Boys and Too Few Big Brothers

A Southland shortage of volunteer men for the mentoring program appears even worse in South Los Angeles.

August 17, 2003|Hilda Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Angelique Pettaway, an elementary teacher and single mother, wanted her four boys to have a chance at success and she wanted to secure it before she died of an illness that she kept from them.

She put her faith in the Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters Program of Greater Los Angeles, hoping that the mentors would give the boys a moral compass and steer them from vices that seemed to plague her South Los Angeles neighborhood. In 1997, she signed them up.

"She was kind of hard on them," said Helen Bates, her mother, who is now the boys' legal guardian. "She kept telling them to keep going to school."

When Pettaway died in January 2002 at age 33, two of her sons had mentors.

Today, Ramone Billups is on his second mentor, the first relationship having fizzled after a year. The youngest of Pettaway's sons, De-Vante Wilson, recently was matched with a mentor.

DelVaughn Billups had a Big Brother for two years before the man moved to Europe. Rayvon Billups was matched again briefly last year.

All the boys had to wait before Big Brothers showed up at their door. That is not uncommon in South Los Angeles.

Though there's a shortage of male volunteers throughout the Big Brothers mentoring programs, it seems the waiting list for children living in South Los Angeles is longer. A shortage of male volunteers from that area restricts the ability to pair up boys with positive role models. And some say that the place carries a stigma that keeps volunteers away, or that it is too far from their Westside or San Fernando Valley homes.

Out of 150 children on the Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters waiting list, about 30 live in South Los Angeles. The organization serves Los Angeles County. DelVaughn, Pettaway's 13-year-old son, who had to wait three years for a match, said he had thought the brothers would get matches automatically.

The other organization in Los Angeles, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles, covering Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, has about 1,200 kids waiting for a match. About 250 of them live in South Los Angeles, said John Kobara, president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles.

"It's the largest waiting list of inquiries from parents that we have in any of our areas," he said.

Single mothers, aunts and grandmothers typically register their young wards for the mentoring program. Sometimes both parents work long hours and are looking to add another voice to the family.

"Some of these people think that, when they walk in, they're going to be matched," Kobara said.

But that isn't necessarily the case. Depending on the child's needs, location and preferences (some ask for mentors from the same ethnic background), finding a match can be difficult, he said.

The average wait is six to nine months, Kobara said.

Diego Herrera's mother signed him up at Big Brothers Big Sisters about year ago. He said he used to perk up when the phone rang, expecting to hear from a Big Brother. But he hasn't heard from anyone.

"I'm tired of waiting," said the tall, husky 13-year-old.

He said he likes going to school, primarily because it means he's not bored at home. For Herrera, having a Big Brother would mean abandoning the ennui of staying at home.

"I want to go to the movies," said Herrera, who can't remember the last time he was at a movie theater. "I wanted to see 'Darkness Falls' but it's already out on DVD and video."

As the oldest in a family of three boys, he has no male role model to look up to.

"I'm tired of being the big brother," he said.

Herrera does not speak to his father, and when he spends time with his uncles, all they do is watch television, he said.

Most volunteers come in from the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, but some are unwilling to travel to communities such as Inglewood and Compton, Kobara said. They wonder if they will be safe.

"Its not the only theme, but it's a theme," he said.

For many of them, South Los Angeles can be too far to drive, said Ken Martinet, president of the nonprofit. "The altruism is great, but sometimes they'll take the easy way and ask for someone who is closer" to work or home, he said.

The trick is finding male volunteers within South Los Angeles communities. It's a challenge because many adults there are working more than one job or don't believe they qualify, said Martinet.

"You don't have to have a college degree or be 35 years old to be a role model," said Rosario Delgadillo, director of programs.

Volunteers for Catholic Big Brothers need be only 18 years old, she said. Both organizations run background checks on all volunteers. Big Brothers Big Sisters requires that a mentor have a driver's license.

In attempting to fill the void, the Catholic-affiliated organization began recruiting high school students as mentors four years ago. High school students visit the elementary schools and play with younger kids or help them with homework assignments.

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