By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama is turning to local preachers for help in establishing a school-based mentoring program in Atmore.
Eight local ministers from various denominations joined school officials, law enforcement officials and the city’s top official in an hour-long session held Monday, May 20, at Escambia County Middle School to discuss the need for positive role models and mentors for the school’s fourth-graders.
Assistant Superintendent of Education Beth Drew introduced Aimee Risser, CEO of the Mobile-based nonprofit that puts adults with at-risk youth in six counties, and reminded those in attendance that Monday’s meeting was a follow-up to a session that was held just after the first of the year.
“We met back in January, and our goal was to talk about some of the interferences the children of Atmore have of being successful in school,” Drew said. “One of the things that came out of that (meeting) was a need for positive role models and mentorship in our Atmore schools.”
The assistant superintendent said she felt those needs could best be handled by Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“After that meeting, I contacted Big Brothers Big Sisters in Mobile because they had already partnered with us,” she said. “They know how to do the vetting of people and the other steps, and that’s why I brought them here to talk with us today.”
Although only brief mentions were made of Saturday’s graduation-party shooting that left one local teen dead and eight other people wounded, it was obvious that the incident was on the minds of many at the meeting.
“This meeting was planned several weeks ago, but I don’t think it could have come at a more appropriate time,” Drew said.
Risser, who was accompanied by Luann Crawford (BBBS’s Match Specialist for Atmore) and Kelly Qualls (the organization’s vice president of programs), said she Atmore is a good site for a school-based program, which requires little input from a child’s parent or parents. The program is already in place at Escambia County Middle School.
“What is unique about the school-based program is that we’re not asking anything of the parent,” the organization’s chief executive said. “They give their permission, and it sometimes happens, but (parental involvement) is not a part of the regimen and enrollment process.”
And, while the program is focused on interaction and intervention at an early age, the Rev. Harold Askew brought up the fact that several older students could also benefit from mentorship under the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“We have several in seventh grade, eighth grade and ninth grade who are in desperate need of mentoring,” Askew said. “Are we just going to leave them out? There is still hope for many of them.”
Risser agreed but explained that such a concept falls outside the parameters of the BBBS program.
“It’s not impossible to change behavior, but our program is for changing the path moving forward,” she said. “Since they’re all in school, it’s certainly doable, and we’re comfortable with that. It’s not just that we love the younger ones, but we have a sweet spot for affecting behavior and goals and helping bring some of their dreams to fruition. We would love to have a whole feeder pattern, but we have to start somewhere.”
Risser added that such a program would benefit from the ministers encouraging their respective congregations to take part. Local pastors who attended the session were Askew, Louis Banks, Felicia Bishop, Kevin Garrett, Derek Gobert, Daryl North, Jim Thorpe and Coleman Wallace.
Also attending the session were Escambia County Sheriff Heath Jackson, ECSO School Resource Officer Jeff Weaver and Lt. John Stallworth, who serves as assistant chief for the Atmore Police Department. Risser made a point of pointing out that many of the “bigs” who currently serve as big brothers or big sisters locally are from the public safety community.
“The faith-based community is a great community to help us serve these ‘littles’,” she said. “We’ve got firemen, police officers and other city of Atmore employees who have taken part in the past or are still taking part. If you ministers could help us find ‘bigs’ for the ‘littles,’ that would be awesome.”
Drew encouraged each pastor and each law enforcement officer at the meeting to “go back to your church or business and commit to trying to find one person to be a ‘big,’ adding that, “If you can get two to commit, that would be great.”
Becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister requires an extensive background check, as well as completion of an online child-safety training course, along with a love for children and a desire to make a positive impact upon a child.
Those who wish to participate in the school-based program must make a commitment of an hour a week for a minimum of one year and must be at least 19 years old. (For the community-based program, a commitment of 4-6 hours per week is required, as is a properly insured vehicle and a valid driver license.)
Anyone interested in helping mentor or build a healthy adult-child relationship with an at-risk youngster may contact Risser, Crawford or Qualls by phone at 251-344-0536 or send an email to Drew at firstname.lastname@example.org.