Big Brothers Big Sisters says big brothers and big sisters come in all ages.
The program's Delaware branches are celebrating 50 years of service to the community, but they wouldn't be able to do it without volunteers who sign up to mentor at-risk youth.
At the moment, the program in Sussex County is struggling to attract new mentors.
“The idea of it is spending quality time with someone and talking to them,” said Sussex County Program Manager Raymond Quillen.
Rehoboth Beach resident Joe Brake, a case manager for the Sussex County program, is an official big brother to two teenage boys, but he's been an unofficial big brother to many others over his lifetime.
Brake, 60, grew up in Philadelphia where he said, at 10 years old, he shook the hand of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally for racial equality. It was that short handshake and his inspirational fifth-grade teacher that changed his life, and forced him to think about becoming a role model to others.
After a long career in the Navy and as an employee of the National Park Service, Brake said, he was on vacation a little over one year ago in the Caribbean when he read the classified section of the Cape Gazette and saw an ad for a job position with the program's Sussex County location in Georgetown. He said he felt as though he was meant for the job, so he faxed an application from the Caribbean. He got the job a short time later.
Brake is a big brother to a student set to begin community college after graduating from high school in June, and to a high school freshman, whose family primarily speaks Spanish. He said his little brothers keep him busy, but he's glad to be a mentor.
“We're working with the child, but we're also working with the family,” he said.
Children benefitting from the organization are youth who come from single or no parent homes and could be living with only one parent, their grandparent, guardian, or foster parents.
Brake meets with his little brothers two to four times every month, which he said is a good goal for Big Brothers and Big Sisters to aim for. Brake takes his little brothers to places like Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C.
“When I'm with a child, that energy's there,” said Brake. “The attention is so critical.”
He also enjoys watching them at sporting events, such as basketball games, sometimes also attended by his little brothers' parents or guardians.
Brake loves what he does so much, he attempts to recruit big brothers and big sisters throughout the week at barbershops, community events and libraries around the county.
“We don't force anybody to do this. They want to do this,” he said.
Brake said the program does its best to match similar personalities, usually finding something in common for a pair. Even senior citizens are matched; Quillen said the program accepts Big Brothers and Big Sisters, from ages 18 and older, pointing out an 82-year-old mentor.
“I'm a diehard American and I believe in what this country stands for,” said Brake. “We can all make a difference.”
Just hearing the kids talk about their views of life is great, said Brake. “I learn from them.”
Another dedicated volunteer of the program is 26-year-old Lewes resident Lauren Shelalis, a teacher at Allen Frear Elementary School.
Shelalis, an only child, has been a Big Sister since 2009, after student teaching at Rehoboth Elementary School. It was there she met Ny'Ashja, now 11 years old, whom she connected with and decided to mentor.
“Being a teacher, I love kids,” said Shelalis. “I wanted to find a way to stay in touch and see her more.”
Shortly after signing up to be a Big Sister, Ny'Ashja's younger sister Tamara, now 10, wanted Shelalis to mentor her as well. Shelalis accepted, even though she was busy earning her master's degree in special education from the University of Delaware.
She takes the kids to places and events like Harlem Globetrotters basketball games and to movies, but she said doing things with them doesn't have to be expensive.
“The girls are just as happy playing Uno or Candy Land than seeing the movies,” she said.
Though the activities are important to the mentorship, Shelalis most enjoys the strong friendships she's built with her little sisters.
“It's funny to hear about what they want to do when they grow up,” she said. “It's been an awesome experience.”
Shelalis also hopes the three will maintain a lifelong relationship.
“As long as they want to keep coming, they can come with me,” she said.
Quillen said the Sussex County Big Brothers Big Sisters program currently has about 50 kids on the wait list for a Big Brother or Big Sister. While the program is now seeking both Big Brothers and Big Sisters, it said there is an increased need for Big Brothers, as 75 percent of the volunteers in Sussex County are women.
Anyone interested in volunteering should call 302-856-2918 or visit them, one block north of the traffic circle in Georgetown, 111-A North Bedford St., Georgetown. Del.