When 14-year-old Kara Bruss went to a restaurant for the first time, she asked her “big sister” Jenny Kandl what the servers were called.
Bruss, a Bald Eagle student, is one of three children being raised by a single mom who Kandl, a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Centre County, said can’t always give her daughter the attention she might need.
“It takes some time, but it’s worth it,” Kandl said. “I remember taking Kara to a restaurant for the first time, and she asked me what that lady was. I told her she was a waitress. And now I’m able to be a mentor in someone’s life and make a really positive impact on her.”
Kandl has been volunteer big sister for about a year, being matched with Bruss.
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Since then, Kandl takes a couple hours out of her week to spend time with Bruss. The two go out to eat and they go bowling, fishing and hiking, or just simply just hang out.
“All it takes is an hour a week to change a kid’s life,” Kandl said.
Bruss is one of the lucky ones: Nearly 100 kids in the area program are still without a big brother or big sister.
“We’re looking to recruit those who first and foremost have a desire to work with kids, who are and want to be a positive role model to a child and have the ability to commit time,” Jodi Morelli, program coordinator for Centre County Big Brothers Big Sisters, said.
On average, there about 300 kids assigned to the program annually. This year, Morelli said there are only about 200 volunteers assigned to those children.
To help campaign for more volunteers, Big Brothers Big Sisters launched an initiative called “50 Bigs in 50 Days” to help target the effort to decrease the waiting list.
How it works is children are matched with a mentor who is committed to spending time with his or her “little” at least one hour a week.
“We hope that we’re able to match all children with mentors,” Morelli said.
Children ages 5 to 17 are referred to the program through community-based programs, schools, social services agencies and other organizations in the county.
“Some kids come from really rough backgrounds, and this give them just a moment to forget about their life and have fun,” Morelli said. “What these kids need is a stable adult in their lives, and that’s what we provide.”
Theprogram is a branch of the Centre County Youth Service Bureau, which is aimed at providing an adult mentor to a child who needs extra stability in their lives. It has been part of the bureau since the 1960s and became affiliated with the national organization in the 1990s, Morelli said.
While children on the ready-to-be-matched list are without a mentor, the program still offers services and activities to them each month. The program is coming up with a St. Patrick’s Day party and an ice skating event.
“It’s all about keeping them engaged, even if they don’t have a big brother or sister,” Morelli said.
For those on the fence about volunteering, Kandl urged them to try it out.
“There are so many kids in Centre County who can benefit from this,” Kandl said. “It’s a lot of fun to create a special bond and relationship with that person, and you can really help boost their confidence or just be a shoulder to lean on.”
And Morelli added that any eligible adult is welcome to volunteer.
“It’s not just college-aged. Some kids don’t have a grandparent in their lives or a mom or dad,” Morelli said.
And for the future of the program, bureau Executive Director Andrea Boyles said involving the community is key.
“I think that the future really lies in inspiring the community outside of Penn State to step up and volunteer because those are the people set in the community,” Boyles said. “Some of these kids are temporary mentors and go home for the summer and the kids in our program need someone stable who will be with them for a long time.”