Children involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of Ford County are less likely to skip school, participate in violent acts and use drugs and alcohol.

    Executive Director Jenny Fisher said the program is designed to provide children with caring mentors to give them special time and attention to help them succeed.



Children involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of Ford County are less likely to skip school, participate in violent acts and use drugs and alcohol.
    Executive Director Jenny Fisher said the program is designed to provide children with caring mentors to give them special time and attention to help them succeed.
    Chris Perak decided to become a mentor two and a half years ago while she was working as a nurse. She said she noticed kids in the emergency room that could use extra attention and she wanted to help them.
    Perak was placed with Courtney and she said she has noticed a significant change in her.
    "She's a totally different kid," she said. "Now she's open and confident and overall happier. I've seen her just blossom. She's more outgoing and more comfortable in who she is."
    Perak's husband also become a mentor, so Courtney is now matched to the whole Perak family. Perak's two daughters, 2 and seven months old, are often there for the weekly visits and are like sisters to 12-year-old Courtney.
    "She's family. She grew up with them," Perak said.
    Courtney and Perak do a lot of different activities together including swimming, cooking, talking and painting their nails.
    Perak's husband helps Courtney with her school projects and reading. They also discuss books Courtney's reading or what she's learning in school. Perak said her academic growth has been noticeable.
    "One of my most proud moments was when I picked her up from school one day and she said, 'I'm reading the most exhilarating book right now and it's very stimulating to me.'"
    Perak said one of the advantages to the program is that you can provide children with a new perspective on life to show them that anything is possible.
    "You can show them what else is out there," she said. "It opens up another world for them. You give them hope of what they can accomplish."
    Perak highly recommended becoming a mentor for the improvement of children and adults. She said she feels as if she's helping more than one kid because the change will affect future generations.
    "I feel like I'm helping my community and educating a family of kids to come," she said.
    Fisher said main improvements seen in children include better self-esteem and relationships with their family and peers. After several months, the desire to attend college is also seen from teens who did not have any interest in higher education before they had a Big Brother or Sister.
    Each child's progress is measured by yearly evaluations where teachers discuss the child's social, academic and overall development.
    These results and other evaluations show children in the program to be 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to start drinking alcohol, 33 percent less likely to engage in violent behavior and 55 percent less likely to skip school. 
    "If we can get them involved in a match, we know we will have these kinds of improvements," Fisher said. "We make life-long changes and after the match is over, mentors will still impact them."

Getting involved
    The Bigs in School Program allows a mentor to visit a child age 5 to 17, for about 30 to 40 minutes one time a week during school hours.
    "We are in all of the schools in Dodge City," Fisher said. "All of the schools refer children to the program."
    For those crunched for time, this option works well because people can volunteer during their lunch hour. If this doesn't work, some local businesses cooperate with the program and allow their employees to participate in the Bigs in School program without being off the clock.
    Fisher said some people start with this program then move to the community-based program, where mentors spend a few hours a week with a child outside of school. During this time, bigs take kids to the park or Sheridan Center to play basketball or swim. They also spend time baking, bowling, gardening or just hanging out.
    "The kids are really just looking for the time and they don't seem to care too much what they do," Fisher said.
    A common misconception is that the children in the program have a lot of issues, but Fisher said that is not the case. Many of them just need some extra one-on-one time because they often come from single-parent homes where their parent's free time is limited.
    "They're really good, great kids," she said. "They just need someone to spend time with them.”
    Children become involved with the program by referral, either through their school or family. Big Brothers Big Sisters workers want to make sure they match children and adults properly, so they make home visits to the child's family, interview the child about their interests, and perform an interview, background and reference check of the mentor applicant.
    The program currently has 50 matches, with more than 30 kids awaiting matches. Fisher said that was the largest number of children on the waiting list since she became the director of the program two years ago. 
    Mentors in Ford County are of all ages and backgrounds, from juniors in high school to retired men and women. Fisher said mentors simply need to be caring, patient, open and flexible.
    "Anyone can be a mentor, if you like kids," she said. "You just need to care."

Reach Cherise Forno at (620) 408-9931 or e-mail her at cherise.forno@dodgeglobe.com.