I was reminded earlier today that you just never know what kind of impact you’ll have on another’s life.
When I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1987, I was very much the idealistic young adult, ready to take on the world and make changes where I thought I could. I had heard about the Big Brother/Little Brother program for years and it always seemed like a cool concept to me. For those who don’t know the program, it matches up boys who don’t have a male adult in their life with a male adult who volunteers time to be a mentor and “big brother.”
So a year out of school I went ahead and signed up for the program in Beaverton, Ore., very much excited about the potential impact I could have on a boy’s life. After going through the obligatory screening and police background check, I had to wait for my match. I was then contacted by the agency who told me that they had a match — an 8-year-old boy in Beaverton named Casey. He lived with his mother, who was an educator at Portland Community College. They moved to the area from Montana, after his parents divorced. I was told that Casey was a friendly boy who loved airplanes.
I’ll never forget the day we first met. I arrived at their condo both excited and nervous. What if he doesn’t like me? What if I’m not fun enough? All of these thoughts raced through my mind as I approached the door. Those doubts were quickly put to rest though. As soon as I entered their home, Casey excitedly asked, “Are you David?? Do you like Legos? Do you like airplanes?” The questions were non-stop as was his excited chatter throughout the visit. We clicked immediately and I loved being his big brother.
One of the best pieces of advice I received in the Big Brother orientation was to not worry too much about always trying to plan/do something major every time we got together. I was told that kids just enjoy spending time together — and it’s often what we consider to be the mundane that they later remember and cherish.
So I heeded the advice and alternated activities with Casey. Some days we’d hang out and wash my car; on others I’d take him on a road trip such as exploring the Columbia River Gorge. I also brought Casey to his first Oregon Ducks football games, and he became a lifelong, passionate fan of the Ducks, just like me.
The official obligation for the big brother/little brother program is one year, but our relationship continued far beyond that initial year. We continued to spend time together and I would check in on him on a regular basis through his teen and young adult years — even after I moved to Seattle and he remained in the Portland area. He was even one of the groomsmen in my wedding.
And similar to raising a child, it wasn’t always easy. Casey had his share of questionable friends and associates — people I worried about having a negative influence on his life. He had friends who died much too young of drug overdoses and other causes. And there were times he floundered personally and professionally, bouncing between various jobs that had little upside anyway.
But even in the difficult times, I made sure Casey knew I was there for him and my love and support didn’t wane, even if I didn’t always agree with or like the choices he was making. I was hopeful that he would pull it together and really blossom, as I knew he was capable.
A few years ago we were talking on the phone and Casey was going through a tough time again. He had gotten laid off from a job and wasn’t sure what to do next. We talked about what his real passions in life were — and how now is the time to pursue them. He was still a young man and had the time and means to chase those dreams. He thought about it and said that airplanes and flying were still what he was passionate about (just as it was when he was 8). He said he’d think about what he’d do next and we didn’t talk again for a few months.
When we next touched base, I was thrilled to learn that Casey decided to enroll in a special airplane mechanic program at Portland Community College. He was following his passion. The program lasted two years, and Casey would check in occasionally and let me know he was acing his classes, receiving the highest grades ever in his life. He had also landed a part-time job at a small local airport so he was obtaining on-the-job training and education as well.
On Tuesday, Casey pinged me online and we chatted for a bit (it’s been probably nine months since we last talked, even though we’ve traded voice mails and text messages). He said the he had graduated from the program and landed a full-time job as a mechanic for an air ambulance company based in Hillsboro, Ore. He’s traveled to Tokyo, Hawaii and elsewhere as part of his job and truly sounded happy. He said he wanted to thank me for my support and “kicking me in the ass when I needed it” over the years. It meant a ton to me, even though I told him that he deserves the credit because he’s the one who did all the work.
So you just never know if — or how — you may impact someone else’s life. Sometimes all you have to do is just be there for them.
David Kaufer is a fun-loving Super Dad of 5-year-old twin sons, an insane Oregon Ducks fanatic (follow him on Twitter @DavidKaufer), advocate for green/sustainability and autism issues, and connoisseur of Northwest microbrews. He and his wife Renee moved to Edmonds in 2005 to raise their family (and enjoy the gorgeous views).