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In search of Big Buddies
Grant County seeks adult volunteers to show kids what a normal family life is like
Grant County is becoming more active in recruiting volunteers for its Big Buddies program.

Almost 100 Grant County children need a Big Buddy in their lives.

The Grant County Department of Social Services’ Big Buddies program is looking to match those children with adults willing to be role models for children who need role models.

The Big Buddies program matches children ages 5 to 17 who “could use a positive role model in their life, male or female,” said Deb Shireman, a Social Services employee who works with the Big Buddies program. “A lot of it is to give them a different view of what life can look like, so they have a choice as adults.

“You can make a difference, and the way you can make a difference is to expose them to a different way of life. They also can give that child some self-confidence — in a lot of cases parents don’t know how to praise, or don’t, and so kids will act out so they get the attention of the parents.”

Many Little Buddies, and those on the waiting list, are from single-parent homes. The program has more Little Buddy boys than girls, because boys in the program “don’t really have males in their lives,” said Shireman. “A lot of the list, they have a mother and sisters — no uncles, or either they’re not available or not appropriate.

“We’ve had kids that have lost a parent, and the Big Buddy has helped them through the trauma of losing a parent. A lot of our Little Buddies are fatherless, or their father is not involved with their life.”

Many Little Buddies come from families with mental health issues, including parental depression or bipolar disorder. Alcohol and drug abuse is also common.

“There are times where the depressed parent may not get out of bed for two or three days, and the child is taking care of the parent,” said Shireman.

Big Buddies can request to be paired with a Little Buddy from outside the Big Buddy’s home town.

“The Big Buddy does not have to get involved in family issues — family problems are not the problems of the Big Buddy,” said Shireman. “The Big Buddy is there for the little guy.”

The benefits for Little Buddies include improved grades. “Sometimes the Big Buddy will help them in school when the parents aren’t able to,” said Shireman. “A lot of times, the child is smarter than the parents.”

Big Buddies are asked for three hours per week, but, said Shireman, “any time is better than no time. It doesn’t do any good having them on our [waiting] list.”

The program is particularly looking for adults with families who could integrate a Little Buddy into their families on a weekly basis. The program has the most volunteers from the Platteville area, but prospective Little Buddies are from all over Grant County.

“The primary problem we have with recruiting is everybody says they don’t have time,” said Shireman. “We’re not asking people to have extra time; we’re asking them to involve them in their life. If you garden, you could have the child garden; if you have family game night, you could include the child. It’s an attempt to show them a functioning family life.

“College kids are pretty good about applying for Big Buddies, and they make great Big Buddies, but adults with families can show how you have a normal sit-down supper, how you clean up before you go out — things they don’t normally get exposed to.”

Shireman told two examples of the opposite of a “functioning family life.” One Big Buddy reported that his Little Buddy spilled milk during a meal and cowered as though the child expected to be hit. Another Little Buddy came to the weekly meeting with a dirty face, so his Big Buddy purchased personal care items and showed him “how to look respectable when you go out,” she said.

“One of the fears is what if the Little Buddy influences our kids. That has never been the case. They’re just so happy to be there that they don’t act out.”

A group of Buddies will be attending a Dubuque Fighting Saints hockey game this month. For the most part, though, “primarily Little Buddies like to do things they’ve never been exposed to,” said Shireman. “They don’t have to spend money; they want to spend time.”

The application process involves background and criminal record checks, and interviews in the applicant’s home of 1½ to 2 hours. The application process requires four references, including one relative, who have known the Big Buddy applicant more than five years.

For more information about the program, contact the Grant County Department of Social Services, 723-2136.