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The Big Brother Effect

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One night, about a year ago, I found myself thinking about how to have a fuller life. The idea of working with a child through the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program has been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember. I knew about the program only vaguely and, almost on a lark, Googled it and submitted an online form, unsure of whether I'd follow through.

Three months later, following an intricate interviewing and orientation process, a case worker called to tell me they had a potential "match" or "Little" (in BBBS parlance) for me. It was a 6-year-old boy named Matthew who lives with his mother and two older brothers in East New York, a distressed neighborhood in Brooklyn. Matthew, she said, was raring to get in to the program since his older brothers both had "Bigs" and kept reporting back about all the cool stuff they were doing together.

The idea of partnering with a 6-year-old didn't appeal to me. I worried I'd be more babysitter than mentor. The idea of working with a kid from East New York with an absentee father, however, did appeal to me.

My father grew up in East New York -- about five blocks from where Matthew lives -- and his father wasn't around either. My dad once told me he measured his success by the fact that he ate breakfast with his children every morning. There seemed some symmetry in me returning to his old neighborhood and paying back some of that time.

But Matthew and I still had to want to work together. After a potential match is made, a meeting is set up at the BBBS office between the potential Big and Little, along with a case worker and the Little's guardian. The child and potential mentor then take a little walk together to talk on their own, and each separately reports back to the case worker about whether they want to accept the match.

I arrived before Matthew and his mother, Kim, and waited in the caseworker's office. During the few minutes I waited alone for her to go downstairs and return with Matthew and Kim, I was more nervous than I can remember being on any job interview or first date. This was suddenly very real and I questioned whether a 6-year-old black kid from Brooklyn would find any reason to want to hang out with this suburban-bred, 30-something white lawyer.

And Matthew betrayed no evidence of an answer as he approached, trailing Kim. I stood up and put on a goofy, overzealous smile, while Matthew played mute and looked at everything in the room except me.

BBBS, however, had apparently done this getting to know you things a few times before. Delia, the caseworker, produced a plastic cup filled with M&Ms and handed Kim, Matthew and me a piece of paper with a list of questions. She asked if we liked M&Ms and when I said yes, Matthew whispered in his mother's ear, "He likes M&Ms, too!"

That was about all it took. For that game, depending on what color M&M Matthew picked from the cup, I would have to reveal a fear or a happy memory. The same went with him. Matthew picked first. It was the first time I heard him read and saw what a bright kid he is. My happy memory, not conjured in 30 years, was seeing my name on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard on my eighth birthday. "You like the Yankees, too?" he asked.

Following our five-minute one-on-one walk, I knew I wouldn't be able to bear the "this isn't the best fit for you" speech if Matthew didn't want to work with me. When Delia pulled me aside to ask what I thought, I said, "This kid's amazing."

"He likes you too," she said.

It happened that quickly. From him pretending I wasn't there and hiding behind his mother to choosing me as his Big Brother in the amount of time I might wait for a subway train. Nine months later, those first minutes with Matthew in Delia's office remain the only uneasy moments between us.

A few weeks later we went our first "outing" -- a trip to a movie theater near his home followed by the first of many happy meals. While I am just one generation removed from East New York, this was the first real time I'd ever spent there. After visiting Matthew's apartment, the movie theater and the restaurant -- and I feel silly writing this -- I was relieved to find out how normal life seemed in that neighborhood.

For our second outing, we ventured to my neighborhood in Manhattan. Following some mini-golf on a pier on the West Side, we walked along the water until Matthew stopped and pressed himself up to the chain-link fence of a basketball court. "Wow," he said, "the basketball courts are clean in this neighborhood."

Just then, I ran into a work colleague. When I tried to introduce him to Matthew, the boy went mute and stared at his shoes. His gift of gab returned as soon as the man left.

"You work with him?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Oh," he shrugged and continued the conversation we were having before the interruption.

I realized two things right then. Each of our worlds seemed to becoming less alien to the other. Also, just like that, I was a trusted adult in this kid's life. What started on something of a whim, with the five minutes it took me to fill out that online form, was now very real.

While the BBBS application process seemed tedious a year ago -- including an orientation in the Bronx, a separate in-depth and highly personal 90-minute interview, and a few months of waiting to be matched with a child -- it suddenly made perfect sense. BBBS volunteers are asked to commit to a highly doable pair of four-hour sessions per month for a year. The program, however, cannot afford volunteers who will not follow through. I suppose the drawn-out application process gives applicants time to consider whether they will fulfill the commitment. For me, this wasn't an issue. After those first few outings, I couldn't imagine disappointing the little guy.

But I also realize I'm not doing it for him. I'm doing it for me. Apart from the ample thanks I get from Matthew's mother, the second and third looks I get from girls when I'm with this cute little kid, and the opportunity to have an amazing, funny, creative child in my life, I get to do all sorts of cool stuff and make use of parts of the city I otherwise wouldn't. We've been to the Central Park Zoo, the planetarium, batting cages, bowling alleys, and carousels, among other places. If I had to do the M&M question about a happy memory over again right now, I'd probably list participating in the program's Grid Iron Games, which put me on the field at MetLife Stadium, where my Jets play, alongside some of my favorite players. I think Matthew enjoyed it too.

One Saturday afternoon, following one of our outings, Matthew and I waited for his mother to pick him up outside the office tower where I work. When he needed to use the bathroom, I offered to take him inside. He didn't believe that I worked there. It seemed that in his seven years in New York City, he'd never been inside an office tower. I imagine such places seemed off-limits. He hid behind me as we went past security. He then delighted on seeing the nameplate on my office door, and seconds later all he wanted to do was play video games on my computer. People who like M&Ms work in that kind of place too.

I'd like to think that places that once seemed off-limits are starting to seem accessible to both of us. And that he may be getting something out of this whole thing, too.