COLUMBIA — A little over five years ago, Gloria Williams decided her 8-year-old son, Cecil Williams, needed a male role model in his life. With his father, Epie Pius, constantly traveling because of his job, Gloria Williams enrolled her son at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Columbia. After a match support specialist put his name on the list, the Williams family waited for a new big brother.
They waited. And waited.
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“Forever,” Gloria Williams said, recalling the frustrating event. “It seemed like it took years and years and years.”
Cecil Williams’s wait is a common occurrence at Big Brothers Big Sisters, according to Georgalu Swoboda, the executive director at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri.
“Throughout the years, and throughout the country, we have more women than men (volunteers),” Swoboda said. “But we have more boys than girls."
Swoboda broke down the difference to be 60 percent boys, but only 40 percent male volunteers. That gap creates a logjam that requires boys to wait up to two years before they are matched with a big brother.
One day in the fall of 2005, the Williams’ phone rang. It was Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Four years ago, Tommy Saunders, in his second season on the Missouri football team, took a leadership class during the fall. A semester-long assignment required students to volunteer at a non-profit organization. When Saunders saw the list, one organization immediately jumped out at him.
“I saw Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Saunders said. “It sounded like a great idea.”
Swoboda said that many classes at MU require students to volunteer at local organizations.
“There are probably 100 or more classes called Service Learning Classes,” Swoboda said. “In the class, the students are required to do something in the community. Some may get into feeding dogs, some may get into something environmental.
“The teachers usually want them do something that applies to what they're learning. So, if Tommy was taking a leadership class, then working with kids certainly applies.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters quickly matched Saunders with Cecil Williams, who was 10 years old at the time. The two began to hang out once a week, even though Saunders was already juggling football with schoolwork. Cecil Williams was stunned when he heard his new Big Brother was a scholarship athlete on the Missouri football team.
“I liked watching Missouri play,” he said. “But Tommy was a (redshirt) freshman, so I didn’t know too much about him. I heard he was on the team, and I thought that was pretty cool.”
After a month, Saunders received another little brother, too: Chris Williams, Cecil Williams’ younger brother by two years.
“Tommy and the boys became like peas in a pod,” Gloria Williams said. “They did everything together.”
Saunders took the Williams brothers to play football and basketball. He took them to “Going Bonkers” in south Columbia. And sometimes, Saunders would let his child-like instincts take over, and just horse play with the boys — or “Rough and Tumble,” as Gloria Williams calls it with an exasperated laugh.
The autumn of 2005 quickly gave way to winter. With the academic semester at MU almost over, Saunders knew he was going to get an “A” in his leadership class. He had a choice to make — to remain a mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters, or to end his affiliation once the class was over.
“We’re not real accustomed to people like Tommy that continue,” Swoboda said. “Most students, the great majority, when the class is over, they see that as the end.”
The high turnover rate of mentors is a problem at Big Brothers Big Sisters, Swoboda said. Almost 60 percent of volunteers are college students at MU, Stephens College or Columbia College.
“We want to switch that number,” Swoboda said. “We want there to be 60 percent community residents, and 40 percent college students, without decreasing the overall number, of course. These kids need stability in their life, so we want more volunteers who live in Columbia.”
To combat this problem, as well as the deficiency of male mentors at the organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters is celebrating its 40th anniversary by starting a new initiative designed to get more male volunteers. It’s called “100 Men in 100 Days,” and the title shows all one needs to know about the program’s goal.
The program requires responsible volunteers who want to get involved with the community, Swoboda said. One group who meets both those categories is athletes, and as of late, there have been a large number of athletes wanting to give back.
Seventeen members of the Moberly Area Community College men and women’s basketball teams are in the process of volunteering, Swoboda said, as well as the women’s coach, Katie Vaughn. Seven members of the MU baseball team, including Aaron Senne and Ryan Lollis, will start working with children at local schools.
“We need some good, quality male role models," Tina DeClue, a school-based mentor coordinator, said. “And it’s always good to get athletes involved, because it’s good for our kids to see they can head in another direction.”
Swoboda said there are more reasons that make athletes great mentors.
“Athletes like to play,” she said. “It’s what they do, and kids like to play, too. It makes a nice combination. And they already have a step up, because kids already look up to them. They see them on TV. It makes it exciting for them.”
DeClue hopes the presence of so many baseball players creates a little friendly competition between the football and baseball teams.
“I actually have been talking with Derrick Washington a little bit,” said Saunders after hearing about DeClue’s idea, “and he’s thinking about getting involved. I’m going to try to get a couple more players involved, I mean, we can’t have the baseball team be beating us.”
People in the Columbia athletic community aren’t limited to just volunteering, of course. MU football coach Gary Pinkel, for instance, is a major spokesperson and donor for the organization, and he spoke on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters on Nov. 18 at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Holiday Inn Select. After the breakfast, 40 men volunteered to be big brothers for the organization.
“I don’t know of anything more important than the young people we have here in the community,” Pinkel said, imploring people to volunteer. “I’m a big brother to 120 kids (on the football team) right now, but I hope to be a big grandpa (at Big Brothers Big Sisters) when I’m done coaching.”
Pinkel also helps Big Brothers Big Sisters with fundraisers, sponsoring the Countdown to Kickoff, the organization’s biggest event.
Swoboda said that volunteering is easier than you probably think.
“It doesn’t take hours and hours and hours,” Swoboda said. “Just one good conversation with a child is enough. What we’re after is building relationships.
“When those relationships are built, then the kids pick up the good characteristics of their big brother or big sister.”
It’s 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 21. Because of the bye week, the football team hasn’t had scheduled practices. The next morning, however, the team resumes preparation for its regular season finale against Kansas.
A silver four-door Chevrolet Silverado pulls up to the circle drive of the Missouri Athletic Training Complex off Providence and Stadium. Saunders, wearing no jacket despite the 30-degree weather, hops out of the drivers seat. Cecil Williams, 13, steps down from the passenger side, and Chris Williams, 11, jumps out of the back.
It’s clear a lot has changed since Saunders started mentoring four years ago: Cecil Williams, now an eighth-grader who plays for the Jefferson Junior High basketball team, is already taller than the Tigers captain.
“He’s grown a lot,” said Saunders laughing, stating the obvious.
The trio heads to the locker room inside. The Williams brothers lead the way, showing their knowledge of the training facility. Once they reach the locker room, Saunders heads for his locker, opening the built-in storage compartment and grabbing a football. He leaves the lid to his cubby open, and heads to Danario Alexander’s locker, which mirrors his own. He cautiously moves his teammate’s clothes before opening Alexander’s locker.
“No, he doesn’t know I do this,” Saunders chuckles.
Cecil and Chris Williams stand in front of Alexander’s locker and Saunders stands in front of his own. They take turns lobbing the football in the air, attempting to bounce it into the cubby. Some throws are closer than others.
“Hey, you’re supposed to bounce it in,” Saunders playfully yells after the older Williams chucks the ball straight for Saunders’ head.
“Oh, I thought you wanted it back,” Cecil Williams responds.
“You can get caught up in the college life, always having do things and go to class,” Saunders says between throws. “There aren’t a lot of times where you can just get away and have fun. Just play basketball and play catch.
“It’s fun to see the kids looking up to you. You do stuff you don’t even realize you’re doing, and then the next week, they’re doing that same stuff.”
Saunders’ organized game quickly devolves into the “rough-and-tumble” that Gloria Williams spoke of days before. A game of keep away from Saunders turns into a wrestling match, with Cecil and Chris Williams trying to pry the ball from Saunders’ grip.
After a long and winded effort, they force Saunders to fumble — one of his few fumbles all season. Cecil Williams holds the ball in the air, victorious, before taking a celebratory lap around the locker room.
Before the trio leaves the locker room, Saunders makes sure to flip over the overturned chairs caused by their rough housing.
“We’re headed back to my house,” Saunders says. “They haven’t seen ‘Iron Man’ yet, so we’re going to watch that and get some pizza.”
Saunders gives Cecil Williams a playful kick, and sprints out of the lobby. The Williams brothers race after their big brother, trying not to be last.
For more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters, call (573) 874-3677 or visit www.BigsofCentralMo.org.