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Big Brothers, Big Sisters program helps build kids up

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The engine powered out of Franklin’s Fire Station 23, lights flashing and siren blaring.

For the Franklin firefighters in the station that day, it was one of hundreds of runs they’ve been on. But for Joe Miller, it was an electrifying experience.

Joe, 14, was able to ride in the engine, wore the communications headset the other firefighters wore, and watched as crew members investigated a report of smoke in a home.

“He’s all charged up. He’s looking for another run,” said Leo Caplette, a Franklin firefighter and Joe’s mentor.

Caplette is one of about 60 people helping guide, teach and simply listen to Johnson County children through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. The group pairs adult mentors with kids facing adversity, providing another adult influence for the youths who need a boost of self-confidence.

Local participation in the program has never been higher, but dozens of children remain in need of mentors, said Whitney Snider, spokeswoman for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana.

“We need people to think about how to set these kids up for success so that they build a better community for us. That’s what our program is about,” Snider said. “The success is not quantitative, but getting people to understand they’re playing a part in the success of their community.”

Josh Williams of Franklin joined Big Brothers Big Sisters last year. While in high school, he did a similar mentorship with younger students and wanted to continue doing that kind of work in his spare time.

“I was a kid once, and I had really good parents and people who directed me in the right way. Every kid deserves to enjoy life in the fullest,” he said.

He and his little brother, Avery, get together a few times each month and spend one or two hours together. The first three months they were paired were spent getting to know one another — eating lunch together, going for bike rides or playing basketball.

Now that they’ve been paired up for six months, they race go-karts together, attend festivals and fairs, and watch movies.

“The kids in middle school and elementary school need more help than every other generation we’ve ever had,” Williams said. “There’s broken foundations, and Big Brothers Big Sisters comes in at that point and tries to help repair that foundation, get them on the path to be successful in the future.”

The organization is a United Way agency that partners with schools and other youth organizations to provide adult relationships for kids who need it.

The organization serves about 60 children in the Johnson County area. That number is slowly increasing, as more mentors sign up and become available in the county.

Ideally, the group hopes to add more every year, Snider said.

Last year, Big Brothers Big Sisters worked with nearly 1,200 children from Marion, Hamilton and Johnson counties. All of the kids involved in the program are 8 to 14 years old. Teachers or other adults select children who could benefit by another adult presence in their life.

There is no overriding connections that qualify children for the mentoring program, but all are kids facing some kind of adversity, Snider said.

“A lot of kids benefit from having that additional adult that they can confide in and talk to,” she said. “They’re not in the parent role or the teacher role, but more of a friend.”

Caplette has been mentoring Joe, 14, for about a year. The pair meet about two or three times a month, spending a few hours each time simply bonding.

Sometimes, Caplette hosts Joe at his home to watch sports and just hang out. Joe plays bass clarinet in the concert and pep band at Indian Creek Middle School, so he will attend his events to cheer him on.

They attended the Marion County Fair together during a special Big Brothers Big Sisters cookout. Caplette has taken him bowling and hiking. One time they went ice skating.

“I finally got a hold of it, right before we had to leave,” Joe said.

In January, Caplette brought Joe to the fire station for a “Bring Your Little to Work” event by the organization. Joe was able to go on fire runs, help the crews organize equipment and learn about the day-to-day jobs of a firefighter.

The experience has Joe talking about signing up for the department when he graduates from high school.

“We talk about it all the time, but now he gets to lay hands on all the things we do,” Caplette said.

Potential mentors are trained by Big Brothers Big Sisters on how to relate to the children they’re paired with. Officials conduct background checks, require in-person interviews and ask volunteers to provide references of their character.

To those accepted, the agency provides activities and resources to ensure the relationship is as successful as possible, Snider said.

Mentors are paired with a little brother or sister for at least one year, but often the relationships last much longer, Snider said. The average pairing in Johnson County lasts for 23 months, above the average of just over a year for central Indiana.

That helps establish some stability for the children involved. But if more mentors signed up, that continuity would increase, Snider said.

For Caplette, Big Brothers Big Sisters offered a chance to make a difference to a young person who needed help.

“I don’t have kids of my own, and it looked like a good cause. I thought it would be fun, and it’s been better than I thought it would be,” Caplette said.

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