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Big Brother, Child Reunion Is Only a Mouse-Click Away

Organization that provides mentors for boys and girls marks its centennial by reuniting pairs via the Web.

June 14, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Valerie Roach was midway through her morning gym workout when a "Today" show segment stopped her dead in her elliptical trainer tracks.

There was co-host Matt Lauer, a former mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, reuniting with his surrogate sibling after 20 years. As if her heart hadn't been pumping hard enough already, it now went into overdrive.

The West Los Angeles resident had long wondered what had become of her own little sister, a dark-haired pixie with a toothless, Texas-sized smile. The pair were matched two decades earlier in the Lone Star state. They spent a year and a half zipping through museums and amusement parks before Roach broke the news that she was returning to California.

Now here was Lauer, not only trading memories with his little brother but promoting a new campaign to reconnect former "bigs and littles" through a nationwide online reunion, launched to celebrate the organization's 100th anniversary.

Roach raced home, logged on to the Internet and started searching. And today, that search will culminate in a face-to-face meeting in New York with now-29-year-old Crystal Sawyer for the organization's centennial celebration.

"I'm just so thrilled," said Roach, 46, a former Santa Monica schoolteacher. Her e-mail about meeting Sawyer for the first time so moved the organization that it is flying them back East to reunite.

"She's always been so special," Roach added. "She was my first lesson in how great it feels to volunteer and give of yourself to somebody else. It's kind of like your first love: You never forget that."

To honor those lifelong lessons, Big Brothers Big Sisters set out in January to create the world's largest online reunion, inviting former bigs and littles to reconnect via the Internet.

Yahoo Inc., which has spotlighted the Big Brothers Big Sisters centennial on its homepage free of charge, continues to donate banner ads and other online services to bring matches together. To search, go to www.bigbrothersbigsisters.org

Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the organization's website since the launch of the centennial campaign.

And about 2,000 have sought the organization's help in finding former matches. It is unknown how many reunions have resulted from those inquiries, but officials with the organization say they are trying hard to reconnect each one.

The campaign is meant to pay tribute to the millions of people who have volunteered with the organization since it was founded in 1904 by a Juvenile Court clerk in New York City.

But it's also meant to provide a springboard for the organization's goal of generating the money and resources to serve 1 million children by 2010.

The group now serves more than 200,000 youngsters, ages 6 to 18, in 5,000 communities nationwide, making it the oldest and largest youth mentoring organization in the United States, according to the organization.

"It just seemed natural, in our centennial year, to look back and appreciate all of the individuals who have come before us," said Judy Vrendenburgh, the group's president and chief operating officer. "Obviously, we would like to reconnect with as many of these people as possible and help them reconnect with each other."

Even in this day of global communication and worldwide computer searches, that is not always as easy as it sounds.

Inspired by the Big Brothers Big Sisters campaign, South Pasadena resident John Kobara began searching months ago for his former little brother, only to come up empty.

It would seem that the 49-year-old father of three might have an edge. He is president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, which serves 2,400 youngsters. It is the largest Big Brothers chapter in the United States, Kobara said.

He was matched in 1981 with an 8-year-old named Cary and for nearly a decade the pair forged a bond, meeting once a week to go to a movie, munch on pizza or take in a Dodger game.

It was not always an easy relationship, Kobara said. In fact, Cary was chosen for him from a group of hard-to-match youngsters, the kind of kids he sees plenty of today as head of the local chapter.

After Cary turned 18, the official age of separation for bigs and littles, the pair drifted apart. Now Kobara is eager to catch up with the boy who became a man before his eyes. But he'll have to find him first.

"You hear these stories from big brothers or big sisters about how their relationships went so smoothly and how they found the perfect match," said Kobara, who has scoured the organization's records and searched the Internet without success.

"Our relationship took a long time," Kobara said. "We spent months and months and hours and hours working on our thing. But we grew together for 9 1/2 years, and it turned out to be amazing. I think it took him a long time to truly believe that someone was going to come through for him."

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