By Ashley Wislock
The Daily Item
SELINSGROVE — The number of children participating in the region’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program has risen 33 percent in the past six years, and provides the opportunity for adults to make a difference in a young person’s life, according to a 10-year volunteer.
“You’re there in a person’s life when they need the help the most,” said Steve Rheam, of McEwensville. “Sometimes, you can be nothing more than a friend. Other times, if there’s something on their mind, you’re there to listen.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Central Susquehanna Valley serves children between the ages of 6 and 18 who live in Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties, said Peggy Reichenbach, executive director of the organization that held its eighth annual Winter Ball fundraiser — its largest yearly event — at the Watsontown Inn Saturday night.
The United Way funds about 20 percent of the organization’s $155,000 budget and the rest comes from events such as a golf marathon, the Bowl For Kids Sake event, appeal letters and a 5K race, Reichenbach said.
About 100 people were expected to attend the Winter Bowl, which raises about $15,000 to $18,000 each year, Reichenbach said.
Rheam is matched with his third “little brother,” 9-year-old James, with whom Rheam meets each Thursday.
“His grandmother tells me that he looks forward to Thursdays every week,” Rheam said. “We do a lot with model trains. He’s really interested in that. We have cars we play with ... We do some shop projects.”
In 2012, 180 children were involved in the program, Reichenbach said. Children can be referred to the program by a parent, guardian, teacher or social worker.
“The child and family are interviewed and placed on our waiting list,” she said. “Once we have a volunteer in progress who shares the same interests, hobbies, etc., we match them together.”
Adult volunteers undergo a rigorous background check that includes “a personal interview, an in-home inspection, a federal background check and we ask for three to four references, both personal and professional,” Reichenbach said.
Volunteers also agree to a variety of rules regarding interactions with their littles, including not purchasing expensive gifts, no overnight activities unless approved by the organization, not using any form of tobacco product during visits and keeping any firearms in a secured location that is inaccessible to the little.
For Rheam, a father of two grown children, it’s about what’s best for his little brother, he said.
“It’s not a matter of being a supervisor for whoever the normal custodian is,” he said. “It’s about letting them know that at least there’s one person who’s always there for them.”
Rheam occasionally hears from his other two matches, even though they’ve aged out of the organization. However, he understands that he isn’t as important in their lives as he once was.
“There comes a point in time where it’s time to move on a figure out who you are,” he said. “I told both of them, ‘I’m here if you need me, if you don’t, that’s OK.”’
The dependability that many Big Brothers and Sisters provide leads to measurable improvements in a child’s life, Reichenbach said.
“Nearly all children in our program show better academic performance, have better peer and family relationships, have increased self-esteem and have a more positive outlook on the future,” she said.
Reichenbach herself is a Big Sister to two girls — ages 16 and 17 — and is an 11-year volunteer with the program.
“I really didn’t understand how I could go out and promote the benefits of the program if I wasn’t seeing it first-hand,” she said.
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