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Wait time for some boys enrolled in program can be lengthy

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FARMINGTON — When Gabriel Gonzales' family was driving past the Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Juan County headquarters one day a few years ago his mother suggested signing him and his little brother Xavier up for the organization's mentoring program.

He wasn't exactly sold on the idea.

Gabriel acknowledges now that he kind of rolled his eyes at the prospect, recalling that many of his friends were dismissive of the program, which pairs school-age children, known as "littles" in BBBS jargon, with adult volunteers, known as "bigs." But after meeting his mentor, Dave Beavers, and getting to know him, Gabriel has become one of the program's biggest fans.

"I think it's awesome," he said, nodding his head up and down vigorously when asked if he would recommend the program to his friends.

Gabriel's friendship with Beavers — the two now spend at least a couple of hours every week together through the BBBS community-based mentorship program — is the kind of success story that has almost become routine for the organization, which is an affiliate of the Albuquerque-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico.

Ralina Lowley, the local chapter's development and outreach coordinator, estimates that 60 percent of the big-little matches the organization facilitates wind up in lifelong friendships. She can reel off the names of several local residents who entered the program as children and were paired with a mentor, then aged out of the program but remain close to their mentor to this day as adults.

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Even so, the program remains short of adult male mentors. As National Mentoring Month comes to a close on Jan. 31, Lowley is emphasizing the need for more volunteers to come forward and take part in the program, especially local men who have something to offer boys like Gabriel.

The organization's waiting list for boys in search of a male mentor stretches to a dozen names, Lowley said, and that includes Gabriel's brother Xavier, who is 9. The wait for a "big" can sometimes be lengthy, she said — a fact confirmed by Juanita Lovato, mother of Gabriel and Xavier, who said Xavier has been waiting for a match for two years.

Matches are not based on availability, but compatibility, Lowley said, and that's why it can take so long in some cases for a little to find a big who suits his or her needs.

But Lovato believes it's worth the wait. She said the growth she has seen in Gabriel over the last two years with Beavers' help has been substantial, explaining he is much more willing to confront and discuss any personal issues he may be having than he was before he entered the program.

"That wasn't something he was doing before," she said.

Gabriel, who is celebrating his 12th birthday on Jan. 31, and Beavers appear to have developed a comfortable relationship over their two years together. There is an easy, familiar humor between them, with Beavers gently needling the youngster about his "selective hearing" and his orneriness or his affinity for the Cheaters Edition of the board game Monopoly.

Beavers has been part of the program for five years and has worked with several youngsters over that time.

"They're all different, but this guy is fun," he said.

The two like to go to movies together, ride mountain bikes, spend time at the arcade and watch baseball. He and Gabriel met through the school-based mentoring program, which pairs bigs and littles in a school setting for an hour a week, before transitioning to the community-based program in 2019.

Gabriel recalled meeting Beavers at Bluffview Middle School one day in November 2018.

"They called me up to the office, and I was like, 'Am I in trouble?'" he said, his eyes popping open wide.

Instead, as he found out, to his delight, he had been paired with a mentor. The two spent that first session together eating lunch and playing board games. They realized almost immediately they were well suited for each other.

"I ran home and told Mom, 'I got a big brother!'" he said.

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Beavers said he spends a lot of time trying to recruit friends and acquaintances to the program, pointing out it offers as much to the mentor as it does to the child.

"The focus is on the little, as it should be, but it's great for the bigs," he said.

Beavers is a grandfather, but his son's family lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and that means he rarely gets to see his grandchildren. He said the time he spends with Gabriel allows him to have that kind of relationship with someone on a local basis.

"It's not just for the littles' benefit," he said of the program. "The bigs benefit just as much — maybe more."

Potential mentors interested in participating in the program much be at least 18 years old. An extensive screening process is involved that includes background checks and interviews that help determine how closely a mentor's interests match those of a potential match.

Lowley said BBBS asks for a one-year commitment from each mentor, and matches usually start in the school-based program before sometimes moving on to the more time-intensive community-based program.

The local chapter has a surplus of women mentors looking for a match. They usually are paired with girls, Lowley said, but under the right circumstances and depending on a family's preference, they can serve as "big sisters" to a boy.

Lowley said most BBBS chapters have a greater need for men willing to serve as mentors than women. But the local chapter was able to increase its total number of matches last year, going from 195 in 2018 to 203 in 2019.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the program is encouraged to call 575-434-3388.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at measterling@daily-times.com.

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