Festival of Trees benefit for Big Brothers Big Sisters

The names alone are enchanting and might provoke the curiosity of even the most unwavering Scrooge. Clair de Lune, Arabian Nights, Hidden Treasures and Fairy Christmas are some of the names given over the years to the gloriously decorated evergreens at the Festival of Trees Gala and Auction.

This tree

The names alone are enchanting and might provoke the curiosity of even the most unwavering Scrooge.

Clair de Lune, Arabian Nights, Hidden Treasures and Fairy Christmas are some of the names given over the years to the gloriously decorated evergreens at the Festival of Trees Gala and Auction.

The South End black-tie event, celebrating its fourth year, is a key benefit for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County. It will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6 at the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club in Freeland.

This community celebration features an exquisite evening of formal dining and a dazzling roster of auction items.

But more importantly, the magnificent glow cast from the lovingly decorated Christmas trees shines not only for the pleasure of gala guests, but represents the light infused into the lives of the children who benefit from the island’s Big Brothers Big Sisters programs.

Bigs and Littles

Big Brothers Big Sisters is the oldest, largest and most effective youth mentoring organization in the United States.

It has been the leader in one-to-one youth service for more than a century, developing positive relationships that have a direct and lasting impact on the lives of children, ages

6 through 18.

The Festival of Trees Gala and Auction is the island agency’s biggest fundraiser, supporting matches throughout the year.

This year, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County has supported nearly 200 youths who have each received the precious gift of time from a caring volunteer.

“This mentorship program makes a difference in our community,” said Peggy Dyer, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “Volunteers from all walks of life become mentors in our program.”

“People with talents in all areas and levels of experience in working with kids become dedicated caring volunteers. Their similarity is simply their willingness to give of themselves and to help youth in our community.”

The agency runs two core programs; one based in schools and the other in the community.

The school-based mentors are high school students who spend time with their “Littles” working on school work, studying together or just getting together to talk and play. They meet in the child’s classroom, in the library or another safe location.

Community-based adult mentors, anyone older than 18, meet with their “Littles” regularly for fun activities that can range from doing crafts together to playing catch, attending a football game or a theater show, going camping or perhaps just simply taking a walk on the beach.

At the upcoming gala, “Big Brother of the Year” Earl Lawsen will speak about his experiences.

Lawsen was asked to join the program as a mentor about a year ago. He had been a reading tutor at Langley Intermediate School and had enjoyed the experience.

“I had felt I had really made a difference tutoring,” Lawsen said.

So when a Big Brothers Big Sisters board member heard how positive the experience had been for Lawsen, she approached him.

“She told me about Darien Jacob; that his big sister had died and he was left with nobody.”

Lawsen started with the first level school-based program. He saw Darien, 8, only at the school. The mentor and young boy hit it off, and Lawsen applied for the community-based program and began spending time with Darien in a variety of settings.

“We spend a lot of time at the libraries,” Lawsen said.

Darien’s interest in books and movies makes the library a natural hangout for this Big Brother team.

When the “Bug Man” presented an hour-a-week, eight- week series of everything you ever wanted to know about bugs, Darien and Lawsen were there every week.

“Then we’d pick up some books and go for an ice cream; or Subway, because that’s Darien’s favorite food,” Lawsen said.

Darien also loves to play board games, and is a “wiz” on the computer, Lawsen said, noting how shameful his own computer skills are compared to his 8-year-old protegé.

Lawsen said he wasn’t prepared at first for how nice it felt when Darien would call and ask when he could see his “Big” again.

He said the best advice he could give new “Big” volunteers is to learn about their “Little” beforehand and get to know their circumstances.

“I think that would have helped me so much if I had done that,” Lawsen said.

Quality programs

Carefully screened people of all ages, including retirees, adults and high school students become Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteers.

Many more volunteers are needed, however, and presently the agency has a waiting list of children who are hoping to be matched.

In addition to the volunteer mentors, Dyer points to the partnerships that the agency has with donors, event volunteers, community organizations and island schools.

“This is why we have themed the Festival of Trees this year around ‘Partnerships,’” Dyer said.

“All nonprofits rely on supportive donors. Big Brothers Big Sisters realizes the intense level of partnerships needed for our efforts to be successful,” she added.

Through this historic mentoring program, children gain new experiences which may change their perspective on life. Research shows that children in such programs are more likely to stay in school, less likely to do drugs and tend to have closer interpersonal relationships, Dyer said.

Local professionals are impressed with the agency’s effectiveness.

Linda Ade-Ridder, a retired marriage counselor, family therapist and university professor, became a board member for the organization without hesitation.

“As a professor and researcher, I appreciate how well Big Brothers Big Sisters conducts and uses research to shape and direct its programs, a rarity among social service agencies,” Ade-Ridder said.

A memorable night

The Festival of Trees Gala and Auction raises the funds needed to continue the organization’s high level of quality programs for this community.

For those community members unable to attend the gala event, the decorated trees will be open for viewing from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6 prior to the evening festivities at Useless Bay Golf & Country Club.

Tickets for the gala and auction are $85 per person.

That same weekend, the North Whidbey contingent will hold its own benefit, the 10th annual Festival of Trees Gala and Auction in Oak Harbor.

The North Whidbey event is kicked off by the gala auction at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5 and will be followed by two Teddy Bear Breakfasts at 9 and 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 6 at the Elk’s Lodge in Oak Harbor.

Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman are regular visitors at that event, which also features entertainment, door prizes and face painting. Tickets for the breakfasts are $5 for children 12 and younger, and $10 for individuals 13 years and older and are available at Alaska USA Mortgage, Discount Party Store, Brenda’s Front Porch and the Big Brothers Big Sisters office, all in Oak Harbor.

In the afternoon, Big Brothers Big Sisters will hold an open house at the Elk’s Lodge from 1 to 4 p.m. where all community members are invited to view the trees and welcome in the holidays with friends. Light refreshments will be served and the Polka Dots band will provide live entertainment at 2 p.m.

To make reservations for any of the events, call Dyer at 360-279-0644 or e-mail bbbs@whidbey.net.

To learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Island County Click here.

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