News and Tribune

November 20, 2012

JUST HANGING OUT: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kentuckiana make a difference in lives of area children, gets help from United Way


NEW ALBANY — It’s Chase Jarrell’s second crack at the climbing wall inside the Floyd County YMCA. Jarrell, 8, of Jeffersonville, is about 6 feet off the ground, and he’s struggling to find the handhold that’s going to let him get a little higher.

Jarrell has an ace in the hole, and that’s Mike Barnett, 30, who’s speaking words of encouragement as he helps the boy move up the wall. The climb is tough on Jarrell, but he gets about another few feet up — much further than his first time — before he calls it a day and lowers to the ground.

Jarrell’s first time meeting Barnett was in the same place about a year ago, and it was also his first attempt at the climbing wall. That didn’t go as well.

“I got stuck,” Jarrell recalls.

But what did go well was everything else. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kentuckiana arranged the first meeting between the two and Jarrell’s mother, Amber. After spending a few hours together, Barnett and Chase were matched as a Big Brother-Little Brother pairing, and the two have spent time together regularly since then.

“[Chase Jarrell’s] father isn’t around, and his brother’s father is,” Amber Jarrell, 29, explained. “I noticed when my other son would go with his dad, Chase would start acting out, have a really bad temper, things like that. I heard about the program through a friend of mine and she suggested I sign up for it. So I signed up for it, and it took about a year to get on, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for Chase.”

Barnett, 30, of Clarksville, is a videographer with WLKY-TV. Single and without a child of his own, Barnett thought for years about donating his time to a volunteer organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters before he took the leap.

“I just finally decided I wanted to give something back and help,” Barnett said. “Whenever you give your money to something, you can’t guarantee where it’s going. But when you give your time to something, you know exactly where it’s going — you see it. I just thought it was something important to do.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kentuckiana focuses on making a positive impact on children and empowering them to succeed. For more than a century, the organization has been matching up children in need of role models with adults who can provide a hand in raising them right.

In the 12-county Kentuckiana region, there’s plenty of need for adults who have the time. During the course of a year, the Kentuckiana chapter will oversee 1,500 Big-Little relationships, with about 700 new matches being made every year. But like for the Jarrells, a match can take awhile to find.

“We have different volumes of volunteers in different areas of our service area,” said Stacey Nance, chief program officer with BBBS of Kentuckiana. “... We always have more demand than what there is available in mentors, which is why getting the word out and recruiting and looking for new volunteers is so important, because for each match we make, we have an additional couple of children come on to the waiting list. So there’s always a very high need.”

Identifying and recruiting potential Big Brothers and Big Sisters and matching them with children in need of mentorship is the bulk of the work for the organization. BBBS of Kentuckiana is partnered with Metro United Way, which helps with funding and identifying volunteers. Metro United Way is currently in the middle of its fundraising campaign.

“It’s their dollars that actually support the recruitment, the ongoing enrollment and the support of the matches once we make the matches,” said Jeri Swinton, CEO of BBBS of Kentuckiana. “Literally, we could not be doing what we do without the support of the Metro United Way.”

All indications point to the effectiveness of BBBS. According to a study conducted by Public/Private Ventures between 1994-95, children who have Big Brothers and Big Sisters are 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school.

School is not a problem for Chase Jarrell, who Barnett said is a straight-A student. But Amber Jarrell says the changes in her son’s behavior since Barnett entered their lives is undeniable.

“When he knows that Michael’s coming, a few days before he makes sure that he’s good because that way there’s no way for him to get in trouble before he goes,” Amber Jarrell explained. “He’s just calmed down a lot. He’s got somebody he can talk to now other than me, and I think that’s helped.”

Barnett has also helped bring the shy boy out of his shell, instilled good manners in him and helped broaden his interests, Amber Jarrell said. The two love sports and being outdoors, but Chase Jarrell is now more interested in following the news because of the profession of his mentor. And Barnett gets something out of it, too.

“I’d love to have kids of my own someday,” Barnett said. “I see this as training, almost.”

Thanks to Barnett, Chase Jarrell has experienced firsts that he wouldn’t have without BBBS of Kentuckiana. Barnett took the boy to his first college football game — a nailbiter of a Louisville win over North Carolina earlier this season — and on his first train ride in Barnett’s hometown of French Lick.  

Provided his career doesn’t take him out of the region, Barnett said he would prefer to keep volunteering and keep Chase Jarrell as his Little Brother for as long as the boy will have him.

“I would encourage anybody to do it, I really would,” Barnett said. “I know there’s a lot of kids out there waiting that really deserve just someone to look up to, a friend, and someone they can depend on. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and I just think it’s great.”