What I learned from being a ‘Big’

As a husband and father, many of the choices I make are inherently selfless because there are so many people for whom I am responsible. This is baked into the experience of middle age; it doesn’t even register with me as selfless.

What stands out in my mind as one of the most selfless acts I’ve performed was a commitment I made to serve as a “Big” in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in Macon, Ga. This seems so long ago now, back in the early 1990s when I was single and on my own. It was back when being selfless was not baked into my stage of life.

A boy standing next to a boy in a motorized wheel chair.
Cleven and Steven possessed infectious joy.

I went to work as a features writer at The Macon Telegraph in August of 1992 right out of what was then Troy State University. After a summer of working at home mowing lawns and doing odd jobs around my dad’s church office, I was ready and excited to begin my post-college journalism career and live on my own. I don’t think I was any more selfish than any other person at that age who by necessity focuses on themselves as they start their career and begin their life separate from their family. I was in a new place among new people. While I did seek a church, I was not looking for community involvement. As a single guy in my early twenties, volunteering was not high on my to-do list. A series of personal connections put it on my list.

Ed Grisamore was a columnist and long-time news reporter at The Telegraph who was growing into a fixture in the community he chronicled. As his career progressed and the senior members of the writing staff retired, Ed became THE columnist, writing compelling human-interest stories several times a week. Ed’s wife, Delinda, ran the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization, and she frequently visited Ed in the newsroom. The features staff sat up at the front of the newsroom, and with her outgoing personality, Delinda never failed to speak to us and engage us with good humor and a positive disposition. She was a welcomed distraction in our day.

Delinda was also an outstanding ambassador for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and never missed an opportunity to promote her organization and her cause. The young people of Macon and Bibb County needed mentoring. They needed adults in their lives who could invest in them. The problem she kept running into was the time commitment. There simply weren’t enough people willing to give the time to a child that the program required. In hindsight I see now that I would never again have so much free time, but back then I, too, felt l was too busy to take on such responsibility. “I don’t have the time” was an excuse, and a poor one at that.

The day Delinda approached me about participating in a new program through the schools requiring only one hour a week, I was defenseless. Tailor-made for people who thought they were too busy to take on the full schedule of having a little brother or sister in the program, this special pilot project let the school counselors identify which students could benefit most from an adult’s involvement. They provided a space at the school for the student and their mentor to meet, and the time was typically around lunch. This allowed the big brother or sister to socialize with their student as well as time to work on academic subjects they needed help with or issues they needed to work out. Delinda recruited several of us in the newsroom during one of her visits, and the built-in accountability of knowing other colleagues had been asked took away any objection I might raise. I signed up, got the background check, and in no time I was sitting at a conference table in the library of Tinsley Elementary being introduced to a third grader named Cleven.

Our first meeting proved challenging. He was friendly, outgoing and delightful, but he would not sit still. He crawled under, around and over the top of the table. Always smiling, he ran circles around the table, and our conversation was halting at best. His incredibly short attention span and hyperactivity were clear issues that would need to be dealt with. But there was something intangible about him that melted my heart. He was so happy and kind. He thrived on winning my attention, affection and approval.

We started by reading together. He read a page, and I read a page. We gradually worked our way up from board books to chapter books, and his counselors reported great improvement in his reading scores. I began to notice, too, that his personality seemed to become more subdued. He was often tired and would put his head down during our sessions. I learned that Cleven had been prescribed medication, and while it was working at calming him down in the classroom, it was making him sleepy and lethargic.

Our lunches were always interesting. At 6-foot-4, I stood out in the elementary school lunch line. His classmates interrogated Cleven about me every time I showed up.

“Who is that?”

“He’s tall!”

“Cleven, is that your daddy?”

Cleven thought the questions were hilarious.

“Nah, he’s just my friend,” he would say.

Tinsley was in the heart of Macon, and Cleven rode the bus from South Macon each day. Tinsley had a program in which kids with a range of physical and/or mental disabilities were integrated into the classroom and not kept apart in special education classes. Cleven was at Tinsley because he had a twin brother, Steven, who had developmental disabilities and was confined to a motorized wheelchair. When I met Steven, I couldn’t miss the resemblance. Steven was as bright and cheerful as his brother. He performed better academically because he was not as prone to distraction as his twin. They gave each other a hard time, but they were mostly sweet together. It was clear that Cleven craved attention partially because his brother received so much of it, by necessity.

When I left The Telegraph to work at Mercer University, I continued to see Cleven once a week during the school year. My new boss, Ben, recruited me to coach a youth basketball team in his church’s Upward Basketball League, a type of youth sport focused on learning the game, building teamwork, and exposing families to faith. Ben thought it might be a good idea to involve Cleven. I got permission from Big Brothers/Big Sisters to transport Cleven from his house to the church for weekly practices and games, and our relationship began to take on a new dimension.

Cleven had never played team sports before, but he was a natural athlete. He was quick and showed good hustle, even if his dribbling and shooting skills were underdeveloped. Upward Basketball divvied up its teams on the basis of skills. Each participant performed a series of drills and was evaluated during a try out. The teams were formed so that talent was evenly distributed across the league. On paper this was a great organizing principle. In practice, however, Upward neglected one key characteristic that impacts success at basketball – height. I had a team with quickness, sound ball handling and decent shooting, but the boys were all undersized. This disadvantage emerged in our first game. When kids who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time loomed over our little players repeatedly blocking their shots. We also had the mathematical anomaly of addition by subtraction. After all the tryouts had happened, teams assigned and practices started, we were assigned a new player. We were not introduced to this new player until the first game. He lived with his grandparents, and like a lot of the boys, had never played sports before, much less basketball. He showed up late for the first game, and when he arrived in the gym, without a uniform or even a sense of which team he was on, he immediately charged onto the court and started harassing the dribbler and trying to steal the ball. I had a lot of work to do.

The season lasted eight or 10 weeks, and our team improved. Cleven and I bonded. On Saturdays, I would load Cleven and Steven into the cab of my little Chevy S-10 pickup, strap Steven’s mechanized wheelchair into the bed of the truck and head to the church gym for our weekly thrashing. We lost every game.

My favorite part was seeing Cleven develop a rapport with the other boys and listen to Steven’s post-game analysis on the way home.

“Cleven, your team is terrible!” Steven would say with brutal honesty. “You guys can’t even shoot the ball.”

“Shut up, Steven.”

“I mean, you pass it around real good, but you can’t get it in the basket.”

“Yeah, well you can’t even walk. What do you know about basketball?”

One weeknight after practice, I had to take one of my other players home in addition to Cleven. He lived way out in North Macon, practically in Monroe County. As we rode out of the city limits and deeper into the woods, Cleven asked excitedly, “Where are we going? There aren’t any lights out here. We must be in the country now. I’ve never been to the country.”

Cleven and I went a lot of places we had never been before. I was introduced to his parents one day when I was still working at The Telegraph. My editor, David, who was bent on expanding my cultural horizons, insisted on taking me to his favorite soul food restaurant. It happened to be the one where Cleven’s parents both worked. I could see the family resemblance with his father immediately. He inherited his father’s smile and his mother’s kindness. As I watched David eat his pig’s ear and grin, I couldn’t help but wonder who benefitted most from this relationship, me or Cleven.

The program ended when Cleven went on to middle school. I called him occasionally for a few years to keep in touch, but then my life took its own turns. I got married, we bought house, we started a family, we moved to the Atlanta area, and over time I lost track of Cleven. A few years back I found him on Facebook. He seemed to be well and doing fine. At least that’s what his curated social media presence showed. In any case, I hope I made a difference to him. He certainly did to me.

It’s hard to call this a selfless act, though, because I gained so much from it. Doing something for someone else and becoming involved in his or her life with no strings attached and no expectations of receiving anything in return was transformative. It prepared me for the stage of life I’m in now. It helped me grow as a person. It defined my character. I am grateful Cleven was a part of my life.