The Big Brothers Big Sisters Christmas tree lot is a yearly fixture in Ashland and many make a point of shopping there for their holiday greenery. Most know the basics of the program, which matches volunteer adult mentors with children who need more grown-up role models in their lives. Here is a look at one local boy and the volunteer who gives him the gift of time and companionship.
Once a week, A.J. Greene has something only a couple of the other children have at Catlettsburg Elementary School: a grown-up friend to hang around with during the lunch period.
On the surface, they’re an unlikely duo. A.J. is a husky fourth-grader who likes to keep moving, swinging his arms around and jumping up to check on what’s happening around the corner. His friend, John Mitchell, is a tall, lanky, laconic man with a fringe of short grizzled hair; together they sometimes resemble a stationary planet with a smaller satellite moving about it in an extremely irregular orbit.
During one of the lunch periods they might shoot some hoops in the gym, romp outside on the playground or play electronic games on one of the school iPads. If A.J.’s behavior or grades have been slipping, they may spend the period in a detention room doing homework.
In the almost two years they’ve known one another, Mitchell and A.J. have gone from being casual lunch buddies to harboring closer ties; where once their conversations were limited to superficialities, A.J. now feels more comfortable about confiding problems and worries to his adult friend.
The two met through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, which matches adult volunteers with children who could use an adult friend and mentor. A.J. is living temporarily with his grandmother, Tina Hughes, who said his father is not part of his life. Mitchell, an electrical engineer at Marathon Petroleum’s Catlettsburg refinery, has been working with children most of his life and feels children in the program are the ones he can help the most.
“A.J. really likes John. He feels he can talk to him. He says John listens when he talks to him,” Hughes said.
The boy is cautious around strangers, but lights up when a visitor asks him about his friendship with Mitchell. “I like him because he’s nice, and funny, and he can do sign language,” he said. “He likes to talk about homework and he helps me with it.”
Their conversations at times turn to the serious; A.J. doesn’t have much to say about that, except to confirm Mitchell can be helpful in talking over problems.
That is something Mitchell wants to work on. After an initial year getting acquainted and learning to be comfortable with each other, he wants to cultivate the boy’s confidence and delve into some deeper issues. “It’s an evolving relationship,” he said.
It is quite typical that children in the program feel special when their mentors come to school, but it works both ways, said Lee McCloud, case manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Tri-State. “The kids have a way of making their bigs feel special, too,” she said.
It is a special relationship, she said. Teachers have 20 or more students to cope with during the day so the mentors fill a role no one else can.
It is a role that, although the organization asks only for a one-year commitment, can last for much longer. McCloud knows of several duos that continue to stay in touch even though the littles aren’t so little anymore. “We know that even though the littles turn 18, the bigs can still be an influence in their lives.”
MIKE JAMES can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2652.