PHILADELPHIA — James Copes grew up poor and fatherless in South Philadelphia. At 12, the rebellious youngster often ditched school and, when he did go, he lacked focus.
He badly needed a positive male influence in a life that had none. So his mother turned to the city's Big Brothers Big Sisters program, which paired him with Paul Sandler, a lawyer.
With Sandler's help and support, Copes escaped the projects. Now 37, he is happily married and works at a Philadelphia law firm, while many of his childhood friends are in prison or strung out on drugs.
"He's a wonderful guy, a great man who did a lot, not only for me but for my family," Copes said of his former Big Brother. "I said bad things, did bad things, but he stuck with me through thick and thin. I guess he really cared about me."
Copes' experience is shared by hundreds of thousands nation wide who have been mentored by a Big Brother or Big Sister. Some of their stories will be told by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a commemorative book and an ambitious effort to reunite long-lost former "Littles" and "Bigs."
The Philadelphia-based organization serves more than 200,000 at-risk youths nationwide each year, matching them with mentors in one-on-one relationships. Bigs and Littles spend at least one hour a week together, playing sports, doing homework or just talking.
Bigs often say they get as much out of the relationship as their Littles. "It's universally appealing to have the opportunity to share what you know and open horizons to young people," said Judy Vredenburgh, president and chief executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. "One hour a week really makes a huge difference in the lives of these children."
Statistics back her up. A study of 959 children in the program in 1995 found that Littles were 46% less likely to use drugs and almost a third less likely to hit someone than their peers. They also skipped half as many days of school and had better relationships with their parents.
Big Brothers Big Sisters arose out of the Progressive Era, when muckraking newspapers exposed conditions in the nation's slums and concerned individuals took poor children under their wings. In 1903, Cincinnati businessman Irvin Westheimer befriended a young boy he saw rummaging through the garbage for food, and subsequently urged friends to become "big brothers" to other needy boys.
The following year, Ernest Coulter, helped start the first juvenile court in New York City, implored a group of civic and business leaders to do something about the growing number of young criminals, most of them poor and many of them fatherless.
All 39 men in the room raised their hands, and the first official Big Brothers chapter was born. Big Sisters was started a few years later. The organizations merged in 1978, and today there are 470 Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters in all 50 states.
Vredenburgh hopes to reach 1 million children a year by 2010, a goal she says is attainable. The organization has experienced double-digit growth the last three years, a function of better recruitment techniques and increased interest among young adults and baby boomers who are now empty-nesters, she says.
Big Brothers Big Sisters targets 47,000 schools eligible for Title I federal aid for poor children, with referrals coming from parents and guardians, counselors, principals and teachers.
The group has a year's worth of centennial events, inviting former Bigs and Littles to register their names online, to reunite alumni who have lost touch.
Copes and Sandler don't need any help reconnecting; they became lifelong friends.
"I saw him mature tremendously over the years. I've seen him develop into a man, really," said Sandler, now 58.