Big Brothers Big Sisters Event raises awareness for importance of mentors

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Who was your mentor growing up, and what did you learn from that mentor?

Those were the questions asked at the Big Brothers Big Sisters event held Monday night at the Punxsutawney Country Club.

With January being National Mentor Month, the program was aimed at raising awareness by joining together members of the community, as well as Big Brothers, Big Sisters, "Littles" and children on the waiting list.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program is designed for kids five and older who reside in either Jefferson, Elk or McKean counties.

It is a locally funded program that matches kids in need with mentors.

Some Littles are from single-parent households, live with grandparents or reside with an extended family member, with some of the children having a parent who is incarcerated or suffering from a disability that prevents them from being active in the child's life.

Some also come from two-parent homes where one or both parents have a limitation.

A few of the mentors present at the banquet were John Adduci, Laurie Ference and Kaylan Kephart.

Two years ago, Adduci became a mentor to Ryan Page, a ninth-grade student who attends PAHS.

With his kids already grown, Adduci decided that it was time to make a difference in someone else's life.

He was matched with Page, who lives on the same street, and has taken the boy under his wing.

Together, he said, they go out to movies, have dinner, go for walks and sit and talk.

Adduci's wife also takes part and spends time with Page as well. Page, who is a science lover, is now excelling in school and hopes to one day attend college.

Ference became mentor to a former student about a year ago. She too is a parent with children already grown.

Tired of being in an empty house and wanting to make a difference, she said she decided to join the program.

She was matched up with Sierra Wazelle, and together they bake, do puzzles, talk and work on improving self-esteem.

Kephart spoke about the fun she has with her Little Sister, Sadey Henderson, adding that they have formed a sisterly bond.

Speaking at the event was Dr. Keith Wolfe, Punxsutawney Area School District superintendent.

Wolfe talked about the need for mentoring, and, as an educator for the past 20 years, he said he has seen kids from all kinds of backgrounds.

Wolfe said there are currently 34 homeless families in Punxsutawney.

Taking that into account, combined with his background, he said he knows of a lot of kids who could benefit from this program.

"It makes a difference for kids to have a role model," said Wolfe.

Also speaking at the event was former Little Sister Molly Zemla.

Zemla became involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters when she was in the third grade.

Living in Elk County at the time, she was in a rough environment.

It was through her school guidance counselor that she learned about the program and became involved.

The program matched her with her mentor, Mary, who was a bit older then Zemla’s own mother.

However, Mary soon became an important part of her life.

For 10 years, they remained matched, and in that time, Zemla not only got to bake and hang out with Mary, but also found in her a mentor who gladly took her under her wing.

When Zemla started hanging with the wrong crowd at school, it was Mary's mentoring that helped her to distance herself from that crowd and become a part of something positive.

Today, she is a psychology major who hopes to go into counseling and one day become a Big Sister.

One of the missions of a mentor is to keep the Little Brothers and Little Sisters on the right track.

Nicole Wells, Big Brothers Big Sisters caseworker in Jefferson County, has the important job of matching children and mentors.

Her job is to screen mentors and families and then provide training. She makes sure that matches are safe and well screened.

She also provides ongoing support, plans and facilitates group activities and provides information about free or low-cost activities and events.

Mentors and parents go through training about how to protect children, as well as how to help them deal with peer pressure.

While they go through the training, the children participate in a variety of activities.

This enables the mentors and parents to learn without distraction and the children to be well entertained.

Once the training is complete, they are able to participate in group activities, which include building birdhouses, karate and other activities.

Recent group activities have included going to the circus, attending the Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp and a free dinner hosted by Red Lobster in DuBois.

The program not only helps the kids stay active and on the right track, but encourages them to do well in school.

A $20 Walmart gift card is awarded every grading period to children who achieve perfect grades.

This encourages them to work hard and do well.

Heidi Stahlnecker, program coordinator at DuBois Guidance Center, read off the current statistics for Jefferson County.

Those statistics showed that, in 2010, it was discovered that 20 percent of adults don't have a high school diploma.

In 2011, 48 percent of the youth tried drugs and alcohol.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program hopes to keep these percentages from moving higher by helping to provide positive role models.

The matches meet three to four times each month for a year, and, during that year, the program closely monitors the relationship.

Big Brothers Big Sisters looks at the short-term outcomes, which include: confidence — seeing if the kids have improved since joining the program; skills — improved peer pressure skills and increased school activity; caring — respecting other cultures; and peer and family relationships.

It also looks at class participation in school and the resistance to use drugs and alcohol.

The long-term outcomes include the kids being: less likely to do drugs and alcohol; less likely to drop out of school; and improved relationships with peers and adults.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program has a special task force that meets four times a year and serves as a work group.

Task force members serve three-year terms and are made up of businesses and social service organizations.

They help plan group activities and fundraisers.

A few of the fundraisers that are held are Bowl for Kids' Sake, Dress Down Days and the Annual Mail Campaign.

It costs $1,800 each year to serve one match, and with no government funding, Big Brothers Big Sisters depends on grants, fundraisers and donations.

In 2011, the National Big Brothers Big Sisters organization began "Start Something" as the new tag line, which promotes the idea that everyone can support mentoring programs in some way.

Some ways to help include:
• Volunteering as a mentor;
• Sponsoring a mentor recruitment event;
• Becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister for a day at a group activity;
• Hosting a group activity for matches;
• Donating tickets for matches to local ventures like festivals and sporting events;
• Demonstrating a hobby or skill;
• Providing training to mentors;
• Serving on the task force;
• Helping out with the next "Bowl for Kids' Sake"
• Donating advertising or printing services.

In order to become part of the program, the child must want a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Family members of that child must be willing to participate in the program and cooperate.

The program works like this: The foundation screens the families who apply, then finds out the child's interests, hobbies and activities.

Then, it matches that child up with a mentor.

In order to be a mentor, one must be at least 18 years of age.

The mentor must have a driver's license and reliable transportation.

He or she also must pass the screening process, which includes a background check.

Most importantly, though, mentors must want to be a Big Brother or Big Sister and be willing to commit for at least a year.

The matching criteria is based on the following: shared interests, compatibility in personality traits, need of the child and proximity to the child's hometown.

Some mentors are in college, while others are working parents.

Some are parents who have children who are already grown and have moved away.

These parents long to be around a child again and to make a difference.

If you would like to take part in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program and make a difference in a child's life, you may do so by calling 1-877-776-1636 or visiting