October 17, 2018

Boys in need of a ‘Big Brother’ face long waits

Three years ago, when her son, David, was 14, Alla Doner signed him up with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA). Diagnosed with autism, David had withdrawn from the world. He had lost faith in humanity, his mother says, due to intense bullying he faced from his peers in middle school.

 “David stopped believing in people. He didn’t want to communicate, which was why it was important to us to find somebody who will be there for David — but not as a therapist,” Doner said.

JBBBSLA has paired children in need with mentors for more than 100 years. It was the right place for David, but it took a year before the organization found an appropriate mentor for him. It was then that David was matched with Douglas Shapiro, a man in his 60s, who became his “big brother.”

 “It was a year that David could’ve benefited, and he didn’t,” Doner said, adding that she is nevertheless appreciative of the organization.

The family’s situation illustrates a problem currently facing JBBBSLA, a one-to-one mentoring organization that pairs mentors, known as “Bigs,” with children, known as “Littles.” The organization is short on male volunteers, especially those qualified to work with special needs boys.

Currently, 40 children — 33 of them boys — are on the waitlist, according to JBBBSLA Director of Program Services Megan Koehler. The organization currently serves 200 children.

Disparities are not unusual. In the volunteer world, more women are interested in helping than men. And because most families prefer someone of the same gender as their child’s mentor, having to wait for a mentor is not uncommon, with more boys than girls in need. 

“Most single-parent headed households are headed by women,” said Koehler, a licensed clinical social worker. “If you have a mother with a daughter and a son, she is more likely looking for a same-sex role model for her son and is able to be there for the daughter.”

According to The New York Times, the first Big Brother chapter, founded in Cincinnati, was “predominately Jewish.” Its founder, Irvin F. Westheimer, a whiskey salesman and investment broker of German-Jewish descent who died in 1980 at the age of 101, described himself, as quoted in the Times, as an “American of the Jewish faith” who became interested in the plight of fatherless boys after seeing a boy and his dog rummaging through a dumpster in search of food outside of his office one Saturday morning. 

JBBBSLA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015, is an affiliate of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Currently serving 200 children, JBBBSLA is one of three Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations in the Los Angeles area — and not the only one facing a waitlist problem. 

Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters (CBBBS) in Los Angeles, which currently is serving 400 children, has nearly another 400 on its waitlist, 80 percent of whom are boys, said Rosario Di Prima, vice president of programs at CBBBS, a partner organization of JBBBSLA. While the Catholic organization is open to people of all faiths, JBBBSLA is Jews-only. 

The third group, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles, currently serves approximately 1,700 children, with another 300 to 400 waiting, said Patti Johnson, the group’s director of marketing, adding, “The biggest waitlist challenges are definitely boys; between 70 to 80-percent of kids on the waitlist are boys.”

JBBBSLA serves children ages 6 to 18. The program is free, and the organization puts on activities at Camp Bob Waldorf on the Max Straus Campus in Glendale. Mentors are responsible for paying the costs of other activities.

Mentors and their mentees meet a minimum of two or three times a month for two to three hours each time. 

All JBBBSLA mentors are Jewish, and the organization serves Jewish kids of all levels of religious observance. Orthodox boys are often difficult to pair up because they have less available time to meet, Koehler said. The organization has done outreach in the Pico-Robertson area, an Orthodox neighborhood, by placing signs in the area’s restaurants, advertising the need for volunteers. 

Meanwhile, siblings of special needs children who cannot get the attention they need from their parents due to the demands of their sibling’s disability make up a sizable portion of children served. Doner’s daughter, Emma, 12, became a JBBBSLA mentee five years ago, when the waiting time was only about two months. She recently was matched up with a new mentor — the average duration of a mentor-mentee relationship is one year — and the wait this time was nine months.

Currently, the average waits for girls and boys are three and six months, respectively.

Doner originally is from Ukraine. She immigrated to Israel in 1990, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, and settled in northern Israel, near Lebanon. Fed up with the frequent fighting, she left for the United States in 1997. 

David was born in Los Angeles and diagnosed with autism at age 3. 

During middle school, he faced his greatest challenges, with students calling him derogatory names and tying him up, Doner said, crying as she recalled these incidents. The teachers were of little help, his mother said, and he was pulled out of school. 

 “David felt betrayed by everybody,” she said.

The family decided to find a mentor for David, somebody cool and hip — somebody who could help David come out of his shell.

And today, he is verbal. 

“He’s weird-verbal, but he’s verbal,” Doner said. “If you want to talk to him about music, bands, he’s an encyclopedia. If you want to ask him, ‘What do you think about politics?’ he will say something like ‘Trump sucks.’ ”

Shapiro, 69, a resident of Tarzana and a reimbursement manager at a homebuilding finance company, expressed disappointment that there are not more volunteers who are interested in devoting their time to becoming mentors at JBBBSLA. 

“It’s  a sad state of affairs. There’s a lot of need and a lot of people just don’t want to do it,” Shapiro said. “It’s a sad thing.”

The divorced father of two, whose daughter motivated him to sign up, said working with David has brought him joy because he is making a difference in somebody else’s life.

“Some days are challenging but there are a lot of days that are enjoyable,” Shapiro said. “I can relate to him and do things with him that he canrelate to, too.”

David and Douglas go bowling, play soccer, have long chats over hot chocolate. Doner referred to Douglas as the “most incredible older gentleman.”

Given how successful the relationship has been, the wait, she said, was worth it.

“For our family, JBBBS[LA] — it’s not baby-sitting services. It’s lifelong friendship, mentoring and support,” Doner said. “Yes, it took David over a year to find the right match, but it was worth the wait.”