by Dennis Dalman
More than three years ago Alex and Brittney Schoephoerster considered the idea of joining the local Big Brother Big Sister program so they could befriend and mentor a “Little” boy or girl.
It took them a long time to finally sign up for the program, and then three years ago they were assigned a Little named Christian, who like many prospective Littles had been waiting a long time on a waiting list. At their first meeting, Christian was very shy and hardly talked, but it didn’t take long before he and his Bigs were talking, listening, laughing, learning, having lots of fun and forging tight bonds.
“Making any commitment in life can be daunting, and we did not move as quickly as we should have in making the decision to become Bigs,” said Alex. “But, in hindsight, we realized that every day we delayed, our Little sat on the waiting list, just waiting for someone to be a positive influence in his life, waiting for us.”
The Schoephoersters were recently doubly honored as the Big Duo of the Year for 2022 by both the state and local Big Brothers Big Sister organization. Alex is an attorney for the Moss & Barnet law firm, based in St. Cloud; he is also president of the board for the Central Minnesota Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Brittney is the assistant principal at Riverview Intermediate School in Sartell. The couple has two young sons and, of course, their Little.
“We are honored and grateful to receive the state and local award of Big Duo of the Year,” Alex said. “But more importantly, through BBBS we have been able to build a relationship and friendship with our Little (Christian) that extends beyond the program. Our Little is now a member of our family.”
Like many prospective Littles, Christian had to wait for more than a year to become a bona-fide Little. When the Shoephoersters asked him what it was like to be on a waiting list for that long, Christian told them it was totally worth it.
“The impact you can make by just being there for a Little is immense and will change his or her life forever,” said Alex. “Keep in mind that each day you wait and think about becoming a Big without acting is another day that our Little is waiting for you.”
BBBS is a mentoring program that matches Bigs with Littles who then do activities together and have lots of fun. The healthy, positive bonds that are created do wonders in the confidence and life skills of the Littles, besides enhancing quality-of-life issues of the Bigs.
Many of the Bigs are not adults but rather students in high school, forming healthy, positive friendships with their Littles.
In 2021, Central Minnesota BBBS matched Bigs with 415 Littles, including Bigs and Littles from all cities in the St. Cloud area.
Johnson, who was recently named Sauk Rapids Citizen of the Year has long worked to help children succeed in life. She is a founding member of the Sauk Rapids-Rice Education Foundation, a volunteer for the youth group at Salem Lutheran Church and president of the St. Cloud Rotary Club.
“Our service area is mainly within a 30-mile radius of St. Cloud, but we are now looking for communities that are underserved,” said Johnson, who has been with BBBS for 12 years.
The local BBBS was founded June 26, 1999, but in its first years it was just BB (Big Brothers). Ed Schnettler and Ed Reichert were its key founders. Later, they expanded the program to welcome girls as well as boys.
There are currently more than 100 prospective Littles on the waiting list, Johnson noted. Some have been on the list for three years. Johnson is hoping that more prospective Bigs will decide to become members of the program.
“The Bigs get so much out of it,” she said. “It’s life-changing for Littles and for Bigs. We are now readjusting after the pandemic, but we never gave up during that time. It took everybody working together to work with kids. And now we will continue to bring joy into the lives of participants, helping someone else and helping oneself.”
BBBS is a very flexible program. For example, Bigs can mentor at schools, including at St. Cloud State University. Kids and parents can mentor Littles as a group. The BBBS Advisory Board members will coach and help Bigs all along the way.
“We have fantastic people leading us and advising us,” Johnson said. “It’s a very strong team.”
Inclusivity is the key to how the program functions. All are welcome, and each participant is highly valued – both Littles and Bigs, Johnson noted. According to the BBBS website, the program recognizes, affirms and celebrates diverse backgrounds, lives and the experiences of the stakeholders, including youth, families, board members, donors, volunteers and staff. The BBBS inclusivity policy includes a diverse group of volunteers, including age, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status and ability. And the youth and adults in the program represent a diverse array of all of the above.
Quite often, Bigs have told Johnson how the BBBS fun social activities help Bigs feel young, almost as if they are reliving a second childhood.
“The program is practically an excuse to go for an ice-cream treat, to go to a park and do together lots of local fun activities,” she said. “I would urge people to take that step (of joining BBBS), and that will bring joy to the Littles on the waiting list and to the Bigs (who join).”
BBBS has a staff team of 13 people, a 21-person advisory council to the board, which has 20 members.
The BBBS Accountability Statement states, “We partner with parents/guardian, volunteers and others in the community and hold ourselves accountable for each child in our program, achieving higher aspirations, greater confidence and better relationships; avoidance of risky behaviors; and educational success.
For more information about BBBS, how to join and/or how to donate, visit its website at bigdefenders.org or call 320-253-1616.
On that website, people can also watch a video of the Schoephoersters and Christian, as well as videos of the other Big and Little local award winners for 2022.