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With hugs and smiles, ‘big’ brothers and sisters say goodbye to their ‘littles’ in Oakhurst

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Eastern Madera County celebrated its end of the year festivities inside Oakhurst Elementary School on June 6. "We have to invest in our kids," said Diane Phakonekham, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Central California. “We have to invest in our future. One day they'll run the world and I can't imagine what our world would be without a program like this.”
The Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Eastern Madera County celebrated its end of the year festivities inside Oakhurst Elementary School on June 6. "We have to invest in our kids," said Diane Phakonekham, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Central California. “We have to invest in our future. One day they'll run the world and I can't imagine what our world would be without a program like this.” Sierra Star

For most students, the end of the school year is a time to celebrate academic and athletic accomplishments, and look forward to a bright summer full of fun.

But for a group of students from Yosemite High and Oakhurst Elementary schools, it can also be by bittersweet moments, as Big Brothers Big Sisters finished its year at Oakhurst Elementary School Tuesday night with a pizza party filled with hugs, laughter, and goodbyes.

“I came in late to the program, but I really grew a close bond with him,” said YHS senior and “big” Isabel Luna of her “little” Morrison Smith, as he beamed next to her. “Seeing his smiling face made my day every time I saw him. I’m really going to miss him.”

“I don’t really want anyone else,” Smith said as he clutched to Luna’s side. “She’s my absolute favorite.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California first brought its program to Eastern Madera County in 2015, thanks to a generous donation of $20,000 each year from the Bryant family, owners of H & L Lumber Company in Oakhurst and Mariposa and the Oakhurst True Value Home Center.

Theresa Bryant, speaking for the family, said they’d been searching for an organization to sponsor for years before finding Big Brothers Big Sisters, and knew it was a perfect fit.

“We feel really strongly about how important it is to have a connection between these kids and these older students,” Bryant said. “It makes a big impact on both of them. For kids, it gives them someone to look up to, to be a motivation, and for the older ones, it teaches them that someone really needs them, and about the responsibility of showing up each week and really caring for someone.”

In the program, 20 “bigs” from Yosemite High are paired with 20 “littles” from Oakhurst Elementary, acting as their mentors for 90 minutes a day once a week. They can help them with homework, play games, create arts and crafts, and ultimately, become good friends.

Chandler Clarke, another YHS senior, said it would be hard to say goodbye to his “little” Nicholas Jeffries after being his “big” for the past two years.

“This program is an amazing experience for everyone involved,” Clarke said. “Even though I was a mentor here officially, I think the kids ended up mentoring me more in the end. Each one taught me something new, every day. For example, Nicholas taught me that age isn’t a limitation, and that I can still get destroyed at chess by 12-year-olds. This is an experience I think no other YHS students should pass up.”

Kathleen Murphy, principal of Oakhurst Elementary School, said herself, as well as her teachers and staff, have seen students drastically improve - grades and otherwise - thanks to the program.

“This is a wonderful program,” Murphy said. “The camaraderie between ‘bigs’ and ‘littles’ is amazing. The trust, the connection, the friendship they build, it’s really something special. It’s beneficial for both parties, and we’re very happy it’s here.”

The connections between students, young and old, was easy to see during the party, held inside Oakhurst Elementary School’s cafeteria Tuesday afternoon.

As a video recapping the year played on a projector, several “bigs” were seen tightly hugging their “littles,” as the younger student smiled in content.

In many ways, those moments seemed like ones between actual brothers and sisters. Adam VanZant, Jackson Ensminger’s “big” since the program started, playfully joked with Ensminger as the two took big bites of pizza.

“He calls me Professor Chipmunk because I can make a noise like one,” VanZant chuckled. “And I call him Super Jackson. I absolutely love this experience, and being his friend.”

Though he didn’t want to say it out loud, Ensminger nodded when asked if he loved his “big.”

“Yeah, I’m going to miss him,” Ensminger said.

The pair, who were named “Big of the Year” and “Little of the Year,” said they’ll likely continue writing each other letters, as they have the last several years, when VanZant heads off to college.

Diane Phakonekham, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Central California, said the program was about investing in perhaps the nation’s greatest resource.

“We have to invest in our future,” Phakonekham said. “One day they’ll run the world, and I can’t imagine what our world would be without a program like this.”

Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney, in attendance at the party, agreed.

“This is good for the high school students, and good for the kids, because you can see them helping each other and that is truly one of the most important things to learn,” Varney said. “For those high school students, they learn life lessons in this program about responsibility, and about being an adult, that will serve them well down the road.”

Several awards were also given out during the celebration:

Littles

Little of the Year: Jackson Ensminger

Reader of the Year: Nicholas Jeffries

Homework Achiever Award: Morrison Smith

Positive Attitude Award: Abigail Luna

Character of Kindness: Easton Kirby

Bigs

Big of the Year: Adam VanZant

Sportsmanship Award: Brandon Healey

True Value and Bryant Family Scholarship (new this year): Brandon Healey

Positive Attitude Award: Jamie Hellwig

Top Citizen Award: Chandler Clarke

Character of Kindness: Aubree Walle

For more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California, visit www.bigs.org or call its Madera County office at (559) 673-4863.

For a complete listing of the Bigs & Littles, see sierrastar.com.

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