116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Christian VandeLune, a medical student at the University of Iowa, was looking for a way to volunteer when he came across Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County.
VandeLune, who has six younger siblings, said he liked the role of “big brother” and felt like it was something he would be good at. He was matched with Kingston Swayzer, 13, three years ago.
“It was really easy to get past the awkward phase where you don’t know each other that well,” VandeLune said. “I didn’t know if we would have a ton in common, but I feel blessed to be matched with Kingston.”
VandeLune and Kingston enjoy fishing together and love to be outside during the summer. VandeLune has taken Kingston to Hawkeye football and basketball games, and cheers Kingston on during his middle school games.
“Honestly, I didn’t think we’d be this close,” VandeLune said. “I haven’t thought about it as a commitment for a long time. It does feel like he’s my little brother and a good friend.”
“I like having someone to talk to whose not in your family,” Kingston said. “It’s meeting a new person and them becoming a really good friend of yours. … I recommend the program to anybody struggling with school.”
The program is in desperate need for more volunteers, with over 100 children on a waiting list to get matched with a “big.” The wait can be a year or longer. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County asks volunteers for at least a yearlong commitment, with a minimum of six hours a month.
According to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County, researchers found that after 18 months of spending time with their “bigs” compared to children not in the program, the children were:
- 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs
- 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol
- 52 percent less likely to skip school
- 37 percent less likely to skip class
- And 33 percent less likely to hit someone
Researchers also found that “littles” were more confident of their performance in schoolwork and getting along better with their families.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County currently serves 125 matches. About 80 percent of the "littles“ currently matched with a "big” are children of color, said Dina Bishara, program outreach specialist.
The reason families come to Big Brothers Big Sisters is “they all understand the benefit of having one more positive relationship in their child’s lives,” Bishara said. “It’s not about making up for something that’s lacking, although many families have difficult stories about a parent who has died or is incarcerated.”
Every mentor or “big” takes a 90-minute orientation training, will be supported with a mentoring specialist and be invited to monthly activities with their “littles” hosted by the program. Every week, Bishara sends an email to "bigs" with free or low-cost events the matches can attend.
Mark Patton has had one of the longest big-little matches in the Johnson County program. His little, who he met when he was in second grade, graduated in May from Iowa City High School. Patton, 71, got involved in the program after his own three children were adults and no longer were living at home.
Tyson Wirth, director of volunteer growth and success at Big Brothers Big Sisters, had a “little” in the program for three years. While he and his “little” Veron Tharrington, 14, are no longer formally matched, they continue to spend time together, Wirth said.
Wirth said being a “big” is enriching his life in so many ways by helping him be a better listener, more empathetic, collaborative and lowers his stress levels.
Kate Klefstad, 40, joined the program as a "big“ almost a year ago. She was matched with Lowan Amlanv, 14.
"They want every young person to have an adult in their life who accepts them exactly as they are,“ Klefstad said. ”I love being that for Lowan.“
Klefstad, an associate director at the UI Health Center, said she and some of her own children have queer identities. She is able to talk to Lowan, a transgender boy, “from a place of understanding” about what it’s like to be a young person with a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer identity, she said.
“It’s just a human-to-human connection,” Klefstad said. “Even if you have no experience working with young people, you can learn together.”
The first time a “big” meets a “little” is at a facilitated match meeting. Klefstad met Lowan at his house with a mentoring specialist from the program. It was “very comfortable,” and both she and Lowan were asked a lot of questions by the mentoring specialist to get to know each other.
Klefstad and Lowan spend a lot of time at Klefstad’s house making dinner together, taking the dog for a walk, “easy stuff you might do with a friend,” Klefstad said.
Volunteers are required to get a state and federal background check — the fees for which can be covered by Big Brothers Big Sisters as needed — a driver’s license check, at least four references and their social media will be reviewed.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County is hosting a free games day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 23 for anyone interested in learning more about becoming a mentor. The event will be at Diamond Dreams Baseball and Softball Academy, 2905 Stoner Ct. North Liberty, an indoor sports facility with 20,000 square feet and eight batting cages. Pork burgers, chips and drinks will be provided.
For more information, visit bbbsjc.org.
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