Small acts may have big impact on U.S. poverty, book says

Thu Jul 7, 2011 12:23pm EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Michael Mattocks was a homeless seven-year-old in Washington D.C., living out of plastic bags and drifting between shelters with his family when he met John Prendergast, a 20-year-old volunteer mentor under the "Big Brother" program.

Their relationship lasted years and provided crucial support for Michael, who dealt drugs at one point but gave it up for steady work and life as a married father of five -- typical of the impact of small acts of volunteerism that are key, Prendergast said, to keeping more disadvantaged U.S. children out of poverty and crime today.

"The common denominator for all these young kids was that they had little to no male role models in their life, and the lack of that -- and the lack of affirmation from an older man to a younger one -- led to some real self-esteem issues. Sometimes you couldn't see them because the kids were so tough," Prendergast said in a recent telephone interview.

"When somebody can come along and affirm a kid, and love that kid for who they are, unconditionally -- be somebody that the kid can come to rely on to some degree -- it just gives them something to build on."

The relationship between the two men, chronicled in the book "Unlikely Brothers," began in 1983, when Prendergast took Michael under his wing as part of the "Big Brothers Big Sisters" program, a volunteer group that for more than 100 years has been pairing troubled or disadvantaged children with a mentor of the same sex.

During the ensuing 27 years, the two grew close enough that Prendergast -- who Mattocks refers to as "J.P." -- ultimately attended his wedding and remains close to him today.

"A big brother is a powerful thing to have, especially a brother who isn't just part of your family by birth, but who chooses to be, and then lives by that choice -- even when it's hard, year after year," Mattocks said in the book.

"I don't know if I would have believed in myself enough to get out of the life, without him believing in me."   Continued...

<p>Regional coordinator Charles Evans (C) picks up children from school to take them to an after-school program at South Los Angeles Learning Center in Los Angeles, California March 16, 2011. The center is run by School on Wheels, which uses volunteers to tutor homeless children in shelters, parks, motels, and two centers. There has been a surge in the number of homeless children in Los Angeles in the last five years, due to persistent unemployment and mounting foreclosures. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson</p>