Big Brothers Big Sisters comes to Oakhurst

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California has partnered with Yosemite High School to provide a mentoring program for students at Oakhurst Elementary School. The program is being made possible by a $20,000 one-year sponsorship from the Bryant family, owners of True Value Home Centers in Oakhurst and Coarsegold, and H&L Lumber in Oakhurst.

A ribbon cutting ceremony was held Tuesday at OES to celebrate the new “High School Bigs“ program,” that will provide academic mentors from YHS for the younger students once a week for 90 minutes in hopes of providing a positive alternative for children after school. Dignitaries attending the ceremony included Sheriff Jay Varney, Supervisors Tom Wheeler and Rick Farinelli, Don Eaves of Yosemite Bank, and school and BBBS officials.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has existed in the Central Valley since 1969, increasing education levels, strengthening families, and increasing positive youth development through one-to-one caring relationships. Over the past 45 years, the agency has successfully served more than over 10,000 children in the Central Valley.

Farinelli, a big supporter of the program, sits on the BBBS four-county board of directors.

“This program is so important to the children and the mentors,” Farinelli said. “It has done wonders for the children of Madera.”

Wheeler praised the mentors for getting involved in the program.

“These young kids will remember you for the rest of their lives,” Wheeler said.

“This program would not have been possible if it weren’t for the generosity and support from the Bryant family,” said Diane Phakonekham, executive director of Big Brother Big Sisters of Central California.

Speaking on behalf of the family, Theresa Bryant said her family has been talking for some time about getting involved with a children’s organization, and it was important to them to give back to the community that has supported them and their business over the past 29 years. Phakonekham and Bryant had a chance meeting several months ago,and after the meeting, Bryant said she got to thinking that maybe this is the organization that would be a good fit for the Bryant Family to get involved with.

“After one meeting with the Bryants, it became very clear to the and us that this was a great fit,” Phakonekham said.

“My grandfather was involved with Big Brother Big Sisters starting in the 50s, and he continued to volunteer for many years until his passing,” Bryant said. “It makes me personally proud to be involved with such a long standing and well respected children’s organization.”

“We are very grateful to the Bryant Family for their generous donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters to bring this program to Oakhurst Elementary School,” said the school’s Principal Kathleen Murphy. “This program connects high school students with elementary students. Our students have always enjoyed associating with our friends at Yosemite High School.”

According to the Program Coordinator Zenia Brizendine, recruiting and screening for the program began in December when agency staff was was invited into Yosemite classrooms to explain the program.

“Interested students then attended an information night with their parents,” Brizendine said. “The turnout and community support was outstanding. In order to be a “Big,” the Yosemite students must be responsible, passionate, caring, reliable, and willing to commit to a minimum of a year. The students must be in good academic standing, provide a letter of recommendation from a teacher or counselor, and have parental consent. The finale stage of the recruitment process is an interview with each student with by BBBS staff.”

The “Littles” at OES must be a part of the after school program and their parents have filled out an application for their child. The “Bigs,” and the “Littles” are assessed, and matched based on compatibility to ensure a long lasting relationship.

Yosemite High Guidance Counselor Stephanie Samuels is serving as adviser for the YHS students.

“We have so many great students with not only incredible talents and gifts, but also those who are kind and empathetic,” Samuels said. “ We knew our students would be all over this opportunity. We are thrilled to have our students give their time and attention to helping others. We know they will also reap the rewards for being a part of this program - it will make them even better people than they already are.”

YHS students currently serving as mentors are Alexia Dahlin, Armando Villanueva, Brittany Collier, Will Martyn, Summer Bolmer, Chandler Clarks, Brianna McCully, Audry White, Erin Schettler, Meagan Monalto, Hannah Morrison, Rebecca Dolzadeli, Isabella Flaherty, Amethyst Wages, and Natalie Bates.

Others who have assisted with the Oakhurst program are Carolyn French, of the Madera County Office of Education, and Diana Davis, YES Program coordinator.

The program’s first day was Tuesday with 15 trained high school mentors at OES.

Alex Huerta, BBBS director of operations said Central Valley statistics show that of the children matched with a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters, 95% improve in academic performance, 91% are more prepared for school, and 100% experience a boost in self-confidence.

“The enrichment based program focuses not only on one-on-one mentoring, but also on the academic progress of each elementary school student,” Huerta said. “The program will act to support the collaboration between Big Brothers Big Sisters and the community of Oakhurst to help find caring mentors for elementary youth.”

About Big Brothers Big Sisters

Big Brothers Big sisters has been serving the Central Valley since 1969, with programs currently in Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern Counties.

The agency partners with parents/guardians, volunteers, and others in the community and holds itself accountable for each child in the program to improve educational success by gaining higher aspirations, greater confidence, and better relationships while avoiding risky behavior.

The agency operates three programs in the Central Valley - The “Community-Based,” “Lunch Buddies,” and “High School Bigs.” In the” Community-Based” program, an adult volunteer meets with a child three to four hours per week in the community. In the “Lunch Buddy Program,” an adult volunteer meets with a child once a week during the child’s school lunch. The “High School Bigs” program takes place on elementary school grounds.

The agency is currently operating 10 “High School Bigs” programs and starting four new ones including Oakhurst. Each program is customized to meet the needs of the children, and the agency tracks grades, attendance, social and emotional behaviors, and reading levels.

The agency’s mission is “To provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported, one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever.”

Details: Big Brother Big Sisters of Central California, (559) 673-4863,