By Romi Carrell Wittman
It was the late 1970s, and Peter Backus had just returned to Tucson after living in California. He didn’t know what he was going to do – but he knew he was going to do it in Tucson.
While driving around one day, a sign caught his eye. It was a billboard seeking volunteers for the Big Brothers program.
Backus, who today owns and operates Backus Realty, liked teaching kids and was missing his 8-year-old daughter, who lived in California with her mother. He applied to be a Big Brother and soon was paired with his “Little” – David Roberts, an 8-year-old boy who had lost his father to a mining accident years before. And so began a relationship that has spanned 34 years.
Roberts still remembers the day he was “matched” with Backus.
“Pete took me to Swenson’s for ice cream,” Roberts said. “I don’t think I let him say one word. I was so excited to meet him and have him in my life.”
Roberts had told the staff at Big Brothers – which later became Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson – that he loved to go camping, hunting and horseback riding – even though, in reality, he’d never done any of those things.
“I said it because my dad liked to do those things – and I wanted to be like my dad,” he said.
Backus taught Roberts how to do all of those things and more. Yet more importantly, Backus was a source of encouragement and a positive influence over the years.
“I lacked self-confidence,” Roberts said. “He would always say, ‘You don’t know if you don’t try.’ And that was just huge for me.”
Backus enjoyed seeing their relationship grow over the years.
“Our relationship now is just as strong today as it was in 1979,” said Backus, who attended Roberts’ college graduation and wedding. “Dave and his family came up to visit us in Idaho. He’s married now with two kids – and I’m Uncle Pete. Being a ‘Big’ turned out to be more than just sitting down and saying you need to be studying this and passing that test. It became more of a real family.”
When asked why he’s so passionate about the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson, Backus said, “These kids are looking for direction. If they can’t find it, they go in any direction.”
BBBS in Tucson has dedicated itself to providing at-risk kids with that guidance and support for 50 years. In October, it will celebrate the milestone with a formal gala. (See sidebar)
Over the years, BBBS has provided one-on-one mentoring to more than 10,000 local children. Currently, it serves 500, mostly boys – with another 125 on the waiting list.
Nationally, Big Brothers began in 1904 in New York City. Big Brothers of Tucson was founded in Tucson in 1963, followed by Big Sisters of Tucson. The two organizations merged in 1981.
It’s easy to see how the kids and the adults benefit from the program. What’s not as obvious are the huge benefits to the community.
When kids are engaged, they stay off drugs and out of trouble – and that means less crime. Better still, when kids stay in school and reach their full potential, they become tomorrow’s community leaders.
“It’s an incredibly successful model for children and changing behavior,” said Joe Kroeger, past board chair of BBBS and partner in the law firm Snell & Wilmer.
According to a nationwide study conducted by BBBS, children participating in the program benefit in a multitude of ways. The study found that children in the program for at least 18 months were 46 percent less likely to use drugs, 27 percent less likely to use alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school.
Perhaps most importantly, the study showed the Littles were more confident in themselves and in their schoolwork and reported getting along better with their families.
As a onetime Little, Roberts agrees with those findings.
“Bigs are encouraging them to have self-confidence and the courage to try just by being present in their lives,” he said. “And that’s the tipping point. We’ve all gone through school and we all see those kids who fall by the wayside – and you wonder what happened to them. It’s lack of a positive influence in their lives. It’s that influential, positive, caring person in your life that helps you recognize that you’re worth it.”
The local BBBS organization is at something of a crossroads. To continue serving the community’s children, it needs to grow – both in terms of volunteers serving as mentors and in capital.
“We have a critical need for volunteers – particularly men,” said Jake Walker, current board chair and president of BBBS and president of CP Graphics. “And we want to expand and reach even more children. That takes not only volunteers, but capital.”
John Gibson, board vice chair, chair elect of BBBS and area president of Wells Fargo in Southern Arizona, added that expanded facilities and staffing are necessary.
The organization is running a capital campaign with a fundraising goal of $400,000. To date, it’s halfway toward reaching that goal.
Marie Logan, CEO of BBBS, said renovation is critical in order to address mechanical and other issues with the building.
“We own our building downtown,” she said. “We don’t have a mortgage on it – but if we can’t raise the funds, we’ll have to take out a mortgage. And that will take away from other things we could be doing.”
Walker said, “We would like to see the building more representative of what we’re doing,” he said. “It needs a face lift, a cleanup, to provide a nice environment for matches to meet up.”
Logan is hopeful the funds will be raised and that BBBS can raise additional funds to support expanded staffing and programs.
“Our staff is made of degreed professionals. They oversee all the matches,” she said. “We currently serve 500 children, but we should be serving more.”
Gibson hopes the people of Southern Arizona will recognize the value of BBBS and give time and money to assist the organization and the children it serves.
Each Big/Little pairing is closely monitored by a BBBS staff person. The Big and Little meet at BBBS downtown office periodically to check in and report back on how things are going. Bigs volunteer at least an hour or two each week on average.
“I just think the biggest piece is reinforcing one-on-one mentorships,” Gibson said.
“We’re blessed to have many organizations here in Tucson that impact kids and support youth and education. But Big Brothers Big Sisters is the only one that provides one-on-one mentorship – and that is just so important.”