Search for black Big Brothers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PAUL Yelder did something ``selfish'' -- he helped a child. ``I could feel myself getting fairly wrapped up in my career,'' says the Boston city planner.

Then one day he heard an ad that is part of a nationwide effort to recruit more blacks as volunteer Big Brothers.

The Big Brother program, which matches adult volunteers with boys who have no father or seldom see their father, often has two-year waiting lists for black children.

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White children are on waiting lists, too, but are usually matched more quickly because of the number of white volunteers.

The ad Mr. Yelder heard, featuring actor James Earl Jones, concludes with this line:

``All you'll get for it [volunteering] is a feeling you helped a child when no one else could.''

Recently he signed up and was assigned a Little Brother -- Kobie Bright, 11, who had been on the waiting list for more than two years.

Kobie is delighted. ``It's fun to do something besides sit around and have nothing to do all day,'' he says. ``We go to things like movies, a kite festival, wrestling matches.''

His new Big Brother is happy, too. ``My reason for becoming a Big Brother is a little more selfish than other people,'' says Yelder. ``In addition to helping the kid, I also see it as a chance for myself to grow.''

Today, Yelder says: ``I'm remembering what it was like to be an 11-year-old kid.''

But an ad running in Chicago tells the rest of the national story. Showing a black youth in the city, it says, ``This kid volunteered to spend some time with someone, but no one took him up on it.''

Though there has been an increase in the number of black Big Brothers in the past several years in some cities, the shortages are still severe, according to Big Brother officials.

But those who are volunteering find, like Yelder, that it is rewarding. Here in Atlanta, Mack Rhaney, a black lawyer, signed up as a Big Brother recently because he ``felt there was a need for involvement of older people with kids.'' And, he says, ``I felt I could get something out of it.'' He has learned ``a lot of patience and a lot more understanding about kids.

``It's been an eye-opener about the young generation,'' he says of his experience with his Little Brother, 13-year-old John Taylor. All that many young boys need to stay out of immoral and illegal activities is ``someone to push them over the hill . . . provide that guidance,'' Mr. Rhaney says.

John is an only child. His mother deserted the family when he was an infant; his father was murdered when John was only 3. John's aunt, Inez Hunter, has raised him. ``He was kind of quiet, kind of lonely, by himself,'' she says of her nephew. Since he got his first Big Brother several years ago (Rhaney is the second), ``he's really improved a lot; he came out of his shell,'' she says.

Nationwide the Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs have merged in most cities.

According to the latest national survey, conducted in 1983, the national headquarters of Big Brother-Big Sisters of America in Philadelphia found there were some 68,000 young boys and girls matched with Big Brother and Big Sisters.

The number has grown since then, according to the staff. And so have the waiting lists -- especially those of black males.

``What we really need are black volunteers,'' says Diane Stratton, supervisor of communications at the national office. A national task force on minority recruitment was organized several months ago. And the topic will be featured at the organization's national meeting in Cleveland later this month.

But attracting more black Big Brothers is not easy.

It may be that the organization in some cities is already attracting about the same share of black volunteers from the black middle class as white volunteers from the white middle class, says Steven R. Schubert, executive director of the Big Brothers of New York City.

Most volunteers, black and white, come from the 21-to-33 age group and have incomes of more than $35,000; ``the Yuppies, if you will,'' Mr. Schubert says.

Still, agency officials say more can be done to publicize the program among potential black volunteers.

Big Brother offices in a number of cities, including Boston and Atlanta, have designated a staff member to work part-time on recruitment of minority volunteers. More ad campaigns are being planned in some cities. Black Big Brothers will be interviewed to see what attracted them to the program.

The almost all-white national board is likely to appoint two more blacks soon, according to one national official. Kim Davis, who recruits minority volunteers for Boston's Big Brother program, says money isn't the problem.

Many outings cost little or nothing, she says. But some black men have told her they do not volunteer because they already help youths informally in their neighborhood -- playing ball, tutoring, or just talking to them. Other black men are helping a child in their extended family, such as a nephew, says another Big Brother official. The shortage of black volunteers is even more serious than is revealed by the waiting lists of black youths: Many of those lists are purged from time to time after no match is found.

And sometimes new applications are not accepted when waiting lists are too long.

If the groups eliminated the limits on waiting lists, ``we'd probably be inundated with minority children,'' says Bill Patterson, executive director of Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago.

But even if more black volunteers, male and female, are found, the program is not likely to be the answer for youths already in serious physical, emotional, or legal trouble, according to various Big Brother officials. The program is ``not rehabilitative, it's preventive,'' says Ms. Stratton, of the national staff.

Many of the black children on the waiting lists are from middle-class families, says Carol Metzger, social worker with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta. ``These are the kids who have a lot going for them already,'' she says, adding that a good number of others come from poor families. The key, regardless of income, is having ``mothers that care,'' she says.

Mike Scudder has been a Big Brother in Chicago to John Lingo for six years, since John was 10.

Chicago has a number of youth gangs, says Mr. Scudder, who is a complaint handler for Commonwealth Edison. ``You can get a little one just before they reach that [gang-joining] age. They're not always going to listen to you, but they'll stay away from the worst -- gangs and drugs,'' he says. He was named Big Brother of 1985 by the Chicago office.

John says Scudder ``doesn't let me get into trouble. He's like a real brother to me. We get along just nice.''

John, whose mother is a legal secretary, says he plans to go to college to study electrical engineering.

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