Big Brothers
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Nathan Graves does not have a lot of complaints. The C.C. Pinckney Elementary School fifth-grader enjoys school, participates in sports and music, and loves his supportive family. But that does not mean there is no room for another positive role model in his life.

Enter Navy Chief Petty Officer Rob White, Nathan's "Big" through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Military Mentoring Program.

The program, which was implemented in Columbia in January 2012, engages active duty, Reserve, or retired military personnel as volunteer mentors to children of military parents.

Since being matched at the beginning of the school year, Nathan and White have met every Thursday morning for supervised visits at the school to play board games, work on homework, play outside, or just talk about whatever is on Nathan's mind.

As the older brother of three little sisters, the 10-yearold loves the "male bonding" time he spends with White.

"It feels awesome to have someone to play with and talk to," Nathan said. "My favorite thing about him is that he likes hanging out with me."

Indeed he does.

"It's not just about the kids," White said of volunteering with the program. "The feeling I get when I interact with Nate -- he brings out the youth in me. It's rewarding."

While the two have fun, something more important happens during the hour they spend together each week -- the development of a one-on-one mentoring relationship that will have a long-term positive impact on Nathan's life.

"I think by being a positive role model for him, I can give something I didn't have growing up -- it just gives him something extra," said White, a master at arms at McCrady Training Center's Navy Individual Augmentee Combat Training and father to two older boys.

That "extra" something will hopefully help inspire Nathan to succeed in school, avoid risky behaviors and gain confidence, said Heidi Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbia.

Johnson said the Military Mentoring Program aims to "strengthen the connection between military parents and children, respect and reinforce family values, and help promote the education success of military children."

Many of the children who participate in the program attend C.C. Pinckney Elementary School, where the program has been a big success, said Annie Crandle, the school's principal.

"Our students look forward to meeting with their mentor each week," she said. "Having another positive role model in their lives is beneficial and rewarding for the boys and girls."

In its first year, the program has already matched 34 military children with mentors and currently has a waiting list.

"We have an immediate need for 14 volunteers," said Johnson, "but we will continue to need volunteers even after those students are matched with a mentor. We will match at least 25 more students in 2013."

Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, live in Richland or Lexington County and plan to stay the Greater Columbia for at least the next 18 months, and be willing to spend about an hour each week with their "Little." Johnson said that all volunteers undergo a background check and orientation before being matched.

"I often hear from our mentors that they feel like they are getting more out of the relationship than their Little Brother or Little Sister," she said. "This is a great way to give back and positively impact the life of a child."

To volunteer as a Big Brother or Big Sister, contact case managers Emily Hebert or Tanza Cooper at 691-5700.