More than 140 of Payson’s elementary and junior high school students lack someone in their life that has the time to simply sit with them and ask, “How are you doing today?”
Many of these kids don’t know if they’ll come home to dinner — 71 percent of the students in the school district qualify for free or reduced cost lunches.
Often their home life does not have a quiet place for them to do homework.
Some don’t even know if they’ll have a home after they leave school — 21 percent of the PUSD student population are defined as homeless under federal guidelines.
Yet 60 high school students give up their lunch hour once a week to sit with these children to show them they care. This simple act often causes profound change.
“Teachers see the difference. You can’t put a label on social skills, self-esteem and improved academics. Those are all things that come from someone caring about them,” said April Quinlan the program specialist for the Northern Gila County Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.
The high school peer counseling class and other students have partnered with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in Payson to bring the younger children one day of consistency in their lives.
“Any child facing adversity joins. Some are struggling socially or academically. Some have single parent homes or live with grandparents,” said Quinlan.
Each fall, Quinlan spends countless hours carefully interviewing the children who apply to be “bigs” and the younger children who are “littles.” She matches the children with each other based on interests and personality traits.
“My little girl comes from PES (Payson Elementary School). All of (the littles) have a lot in common (with their bigs). She likes cheerleading and so do I,” said Kassidy McAfee, a junior who plans on making counseling her career.
McAfee and her fellow peer counseling classmates fill the Julia Randall Elementary (JRE) library on this Wednesday afternoon to meet with their littles.
High school counselor Judy Michel facilitates the peer counseling class. She trains the students for nine weeks on counseling skills. The class learns confrontation, decision-making, and assertiveness skills along with understanding how to ask open-ended questions. By the time the bigs meet their littles, they have the skills to make their time together valuable.
The energy of the room buzzes. Both the high school students and their littles can’t wait to spend time together.
This afternoon represents the second time the bigs and littles have met up with each other. At their first meeting the week before, Quinlan and Michel created a ceremony where the bigs gave their littles a pin to commemorate the beginning of their relationship.
Today they spend time getting to know one another. Michel gives the bigs a list of questions that prompts them to ask about their little’s favorite book, magazine, movie, actor/actress, singer, record, sport, subject in school, food, etc.
After interviewing each other, the bigs stand at the front of the group introducing themselves and their littles.
“I’m Megan and this is Faith. Her favorite food is ice cream. Her favorite saying is, ‘Hey!’ and her ambition is to work in a salon doing hair and nails,” said Megan Wessel, a peer counseling student.
As she spoke, her little, Faith, shyly looked at the crowd. Before her introduction was over, Faith beamed with pride. Something as simple as someone sharing her likes and dislikes, interests and concerns with others made Faith feel important and interesting.
When Megan finished, the group clapped for Faith. She almost skipped as they returned to their seats.
The relationship between bigs and littles often moves beyond simply getting together and playing. Bigs offer a role model for their littles.
Quinlan told the story of a little embroiled in a discipline problem when his big came to spend time with him. Instead of leaving his little alone, the big sat with him in the office and helped to write an apology note to the teacher. The little didn’t feel judged or alone as he sat through his ordeal. The big helped his little to learn how to appropriately respond to the consequences of his actions.
The vision of the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization is that all children achieve success in life. Their mission is to provide young children who face difficulty one on one professionally supported relationships that change lives.
Austin Shannon, a senior in the peer counseling class and a Big Brother, has established one such special relationship with Brett Beckham. This year marks the second he’s worked with Beckham.
“Brett is an exciting kid. There’s never a dull moment when we’re together,” said Shannon.
“We both like video games,” said Brett.
When they spend time together, they don’t play video games. Instead Shannon enjoys taking Brett outside to focus some of the energy the boy exudes. On this day, when the introductions end, Shannon walks Brett back to class to make sure he’s where he needs to be and on time.
“Brett really benefits from working with Austin,” said Quinlan.