July 7, 2011 / 12:52 PM / 8 years ago

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

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 U.S. 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.”

But Prendergast said the program, for all its longevity, is now struggling a bit, partly because of the recent economic crisis that has hit many non-profit organizations.

In addition, many fewer men are volunteering, perhaps due to the current pressures to get ahead in their careers, as well as a general sense that urban problems are so big that nothing can be done to make a difference.

But he insists that’s not true.

“According to all the studies, these programs where you establish that connection between a little kid and an adult that can help guide them for the rest of their lives, there just isn’t as cheap an initiative that can have such an incredibly bountiful payoff.”

Prendergast, who described himself as afraid of commitment when he first met Mattocks, feels he gained nearly as much, crediting their bond for making his recent marriage possible.

“Sometimes he has better advice for me than I have for him... He’s a husband with five kids, he’s got all kinds of experience that I have no idea about,” Prendergast said.

“I’ve told him I’m going to be tapping him regularly on the parenthood stuff, because I don’t have any idea.”

Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato

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