Matthew Smith, left, stands with his “Big,” James Lopez. The two have been matched for eight months as part of Big Brother Big Sister Island County’s community-based mentoring program. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

New funding bolsters Big Brothers Big Sisters presence

A year ago, 11-year-old Matthew Smith was behind in school, mostly kept to himself and spent nearly all his time playing video games or watching TV.

Today, he still plays a lot of video games, but his life has changed significantly.

“I’ve definitely changed,” Smith said. “Now I’m not as angry anymore.”

Smith said he feels happier because he has someone to talk to — his mentor of eight months, James Lopez.

Smith and Lopez were matched through the community-based mentoring program of Big Brothers Big Sisters Island County. Smith said Lopez gives him advice, supports him in school and spends time with him doing things they both enjoy, like playing video games.

Recently, Island County provided money to Big Brothers Big Sisters through funding from the state’s Dedicated Marijuana Account to support the mentoring program. The state directed counties to use their allocation of the revenue from taxes on marijuana sales for evidence-based programs that focus on drug-use prevention for youth.

Nationally, Big Brothers Big Sisters conducts comprehensive surveys before the match is made and again each year for the duration of the pairing to track outcomes. The surveys assess peer relationships, academic progress, risk factors, social competency and more. The match coordinators also check in with the parents and schools of the “Littles” to assess progress.

“It gives us that snapshot of progress, and how they actually are doing,” Julie Langrock, executive director of Brothers Big Sisters Island County, said.

During the 2015-16 school year, Brothers Big Sisters Island County surveys found that 70 percent of Littles who didn’t believe they would finish high school before meetings their “Bigs” now believe they will. The survey also found 100 percent of Island County Littles avoided the judicial system from the time they began meeting with their Big.

Since being matched with Lopez, Smith has caught up on his school work, his grandma says his interactions with his peers have improved and he helps out around the house more often. The Big and Little are avid gamers and enjoy going to the movies. Lopez tries to see Smith twice a week, and over time he became close with Smith’s grandparents.

Smith also has had the opportunity to spend time with Lopez’s wife and 3-year-old daughter.

“I kind of see myself in him,” Lopez said.

There are currently 54 community-based matches with the Island County chapter. The organization is hoping to use the county funding to expand these types of services to more individuals on South Whidbey, according to Langrock.

There are three Big-Little community matches in Coupeville and one in Langley.

Brothers Big Sisters Island County was inactive for a period of time on South Whidbey until about a year ago. The one match in Langley was active for seven years, despite the lack of Brothers Big Sisters in the community.

“That community down there is mostly people that plan to stay there long term,” Anita Joseph, match coordinator, said about expanding to South Whidbey. “They just have really long, successful matches, so it’ll be fun to be back.”

Community mentors must be 19 or older and able to commit to their Little for at least one year. Matches are made based on similar interests and backgrounds.

Lopez said he wishes he’d been involved in a similar program when he was Smith’s age.

“You know someone is always on your side, no matter what,” Lopez said. “That’s what I wish I had growing up.”

Lopez, who works in the hospital at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, said he got busy with work and training for a while and wasn’t able to see Smith for a few weeks. He felt bad about it.

So, when he finally had time, he called Smith and asked what he wanted to do.

“I apologized to Matt, I said we’re making it up right now, we’re going to do what you want,” he recalled. “I asked him is there was anything he wanted to do, and he said he just wanted to be with me, honestly … that was a real heartwarming thing he told me.”

In May, Lopez travels to Texas to attend certification school, but he’s already told Smith that he can call him anytime while he’s gone.

“Plus, we’re Xbox friends, so I’m sure we’ll build stuff and play Overwatch or something,” Lopez said with a laugh.

To this, Smith smirked and added, “If I’m able to get (the game), I’ll probably find him on there and beat him.”