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Pittsburgh-area Big Brothers program short on male mentors

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 11:03 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Mark Bezilla, 28, of Mt. Washington offers Eric Gary, 10, of Oakland some encouragement as they play basketball on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in the Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District. Bezilla, a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, has been mentoring for Eric for three years.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Mark Bezilla, 28, of Mt. Washington and Eric Gary, 10, of Oakland race to reach the ball during a game of dodgeball on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in the Thelma Lovette YMCA in the Hill District.

Not long after Mark Bezilla became a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, his “little brother” asked him to attend a “Take your father to school” event.

“All the kids started asking, ‘Are you Eric's dad?' ” said Bezilla, 28, of Mt. Washington, joking that he and Eric, 10, look nothing like each other. “It certainly means the world to me that he would ask me to participate in that activity. We're basically like buddies, but I'm also more of a parental figure, as opposed to just friends.”

Bezilla, who joined the program three years ago, sees Eric twice a month. The unlikely pair has grown so close that Bezilla asked Eric to be a groomsman in his wedding in August.

Not all the boys in the program are as fortunate as Eric, as the Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter is dealing with a significant shortage of male volunteers.

The nonprofit organization has a waiting list of nearly 90 boys, said CEO Jan Glick.

It is typically easy to find female volunteers for the program, which matches mentors to children ages 6 to 13.

“We all know how busy we are today, pulled in a lot of different directions with work and family and everything else, but the biggest gift that somebody can give is the gift of their time,” Glick said.

The time commitment varies, but Glick said “big brothers” are asked to see their “little brothers” at least twice a month for three to five hours at a time. Big brothers do everything from taking youngsters to sporting events to simply hanging out while tossing a football or helping with a school project.

“It's not about being Disney daddy,” Glick said. “It's not about taking them to Kennywood and then to Sandcastle and then to here, there and everywhere. It's about the relationship and building the relationship and spending that one-on-one time together.”

The youngsters typically are from low-income, single-parent families in which they lack a strong male figure. Some are being raised by grandparents, and some have a parent who is incarcerated.

To make sure a match works, the organization's staff interviews prospective volunteers and conducts background checks that include any criminal charges. Most matches are successful, and some lead to lifetime relationships.

“The longer the match is together, the longer the impact that can be seen on the child,” said Cheryl Jones, the local organization's director of quality assurance and special services.

Bezilla, a Penn State University graduate who likes sports and the outdoors, said he and Eric enjoy going to sporting events. Bezilla talks frequently to Eric's mother and aunt to stay informed about his academic work and school activities.

“When they need me to make sure that I reiterate a point or value, I'm happy to play that role,” said Bezilla, who is an assistant vice president for community affairs at PNC, Downtown.

“At the end of the day, I'm not a friend — I'm a mentor,” he said. “I need to give him feedback, whether he likes it or not.”

Luis Fábregas is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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