Mentoring group pleads for support

The Big Brothers Big Sisters of New Orleans issued a plea to the community Friday to help raise $250,000 to ensure the future of organization’s mission of mentorship in the city.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the organization served about 800 kids. When it reopened six months following the storm, the group served about 400 kids, despite the floodwaters that destroyed its offices, flooded the homes of all its employees and scattered their “bigs” and their donor base, said Chief Operating Officer Dolores Medina-Whitfield.

But after being hit hard by the 2008 recession, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and most recently Hurricane Isaac, the nonprofit agency serves just 40 children, Medina-Whitfield said. Many of the state and federal funds that had been previously available dried up, she said — after the agency bounced back and “started from scratch” in the wake of Katrina.

To help bring awareness to the group that he said was a large part of his success, two-time Super Bowl champion Darrin Smith told his story as a “Little.” Smith, who grew up in Miami, lost his father when he was 3. The youngest of five children, he said his mother, suddenly on her own, worked hard to meet her family’s needs as a cook in a Sears cafeteria.

When Smith was 8 years old, he said his mother turned to Big Brothers Big Sisters for help, and Smith was matched with Seymour Marksman.

Thirty-four years later, Smith still calls himself a Little Brother but describes the bond with Marksman more as a father-son relationship.

Smith said two of his siblings also had Big Brothers, and sometimes he would get jealous because they would spend more time doing fun activities. With the exception of regular bowling outings, Smith said that Marksman was “old school,” from the Caribbean, and largely focused on instilling the importance of hard work, determination and education into the young Smith.

Now, Smith runs his own foundation focused on youth literacy and the value of reading, Million Book Read, and earned his undergraduate degree followed by an MBA.

“He planted that seed,” Smith said of his Big Brother. Marksman was always putting books in his hand, Smith said, and because of that, “I realized where reading can take you.”

But equally as important, Smith said Marksman taught him how to be a good husband and a good father. Smith said his mother never remarried, and it was in Marskman whom Smith found a father figure and role model for a strong marriage.

“The connection is always going to be there, whether we are or not,” Medina-Whitfield said of the bonds that are created through the program.

Smith said Marksman was there at his high school graduation, his college graduation, his wedding day and the birth of his twins.

Smith said he is now a Big Brother, and sees himself — a shy boy in need of direction — in his new Little Brother.

Medina-Whitfield stressed the importance of early intervention into the lives of at-risk kids. It’s hard to redirect them once they start in a negative direction, she said.

Board president Gary Huntley pointed to research that shows that the program improves the academic success of participants and decreases the likelihood toward drugs and violence compared to peers who do not have mentors.

Huntley urged corporations, local businesses, philanthropists and individuals to donate their time and money to keep the organization alive and growing.

Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University and a Big Brother for the past eight years, joined in the campaign to strengthen the presence of Big Brothers Big Sisters in the city and lauded the tangible impact the program has on the lives of youth.

The need is great, Smith said, and “As a former Little, I assure you — it makes a difference.”