A big impact

Teens and their father grateful for the role of Big Brothers in their family%u2019s lives

BRATTLEBORO — Chet Godfrey has lived in the area for four years. He is a single parent to 14-year-old twins, Stephen and Garret.

“Everything is much better now, but I had some health problems,” says Godfrey. “For quite a while, I didn't even have a car.”

“I thought maybe having a Big Brother would be good for my kids because I couldn't get out much,” he says.

Godfrey acknowledges that he was hesitant at first.

“I felt like I was trying to find someone to take my place,” he says. “I'm glad that I applied anyway. It's been wonderful for my boys.”

Nanci Leitch, development and communications director at Youth Services, the nonprofit that runs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Windham County, is familiar with stories like these.

“National research demonstrates that 'mentoring' - pairing a caring adult volunteer with a young person for a mutually rewarding friendship - is an effective method of addressing all sorts of youth-related issues, from combating drug and alcohol use and violence to getting along better with their families and peers,” she says.

That information is the furthest thing from 14-year-old Garret Godfrey's mind. He's all about the fun times he shares with his Big Brother, Mark Gouger.

“I find it really fun because I get to do more things, and it's always fun to meet new people,” says Garret. “We like to go to the movies, bowling, stuff like that.”

Garret says he would recommend having a Big Brother to other kids.

“I told my friends, 'You should do this because you'll have more things to do and have more fun and stuff,' but maybe they think they'll have to wait awhile, so they haven't signed up,” he says.

Garret knows how the system works because he was matched with his Big Brother almost a year before his twin brother Stephen was.

At present, Big Brothers Big Sisters has 36 young people on its waiting list for a mentor, both boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 15, throughout Windham County.

According to the program's staff, some have been waiting for more than a year to be matched, due to a shortage of adults stepping forward.

Leitch says that 74 percent of all Littles (as they are known) come from single-parent households.

“Windham County has an unusually high rate of single parent households,” Leitch says. “Often, the other parent is not part of the picture in these children's lives, some due to incarceration, others from death, separation, or [irreconcilable] difference with the custodial parent.”

A number of the single parents in the program are homebound due to health issues. Having another adult who can attend activities or be physically active with a child has been a lifesaver on many levels.

This was certainly the case for the Godfrey family.

“As I got to know the Big Brothers to my boys, my worries eased,” Godfrey says.

“It's been good to get the boys out to places I couldn't. They've helped me out when I've had to be in the hospital, and it gives a single parent a break, too,” he says.

Once a child is on the waiting list for the program, Youth Services finds a mentor who has the same interests as the young person who is waiting.

Godfrey is quite pleased with his twins' matches.

“Garret likes sports and his Big Brother, Mark Gouger, does too. Stephen's interests are in mechanics, so they found a Big Brother, Chris Bates, who likes to fix cars,” Godfrey says.

Godfrey adds that his son and Bates have “even volunteered to do car repairs for people who can't afford a mechanic.”

“Some people have asked me if I would recommend the program and I'd say “yes” to anybody. They are very good at screening people. It's a long process, too, because they do background checks and they do follow-up to see how the kids are getting along with their mentors.”

'He gave me skills I've used all my life'

Bates is especially glad that Godfrey applied for the program, as he is honored to be a Big Brother to Stephen.

Bates, 43, is the father of his own 14-year-old son, and two daughters, 11 and 8. He has a demanding job that requires him to work a lot of 12-hour days, but he still finds the time to spend with not only his own kids, but with his Little Brother as well.

He knows firsthand what it is like to have a friend and mentor.

“When I was young, I was mentored by a friend's father. He taught me how to work on engines and cars. He gave me skills I've used all my life,” he says.

“We worked together on a 1973 Plymouth Barracuda when I was 15. I still have it,” Bates adds.

“It really makes me happy to be able to share this knowledge with [Stephen], as my mentor shared it with me when I was his age,” says Bates. “In fact, Stephen is coming over this weekend. We'll be working on a driveshaft.”

Bates says the compensation comes in the form of “something that I truly enjoy.”

“I spend time alone with each of my children, and that's great. My son doesn't happen to share my passion for cars, so it's also wonderful for me to have Stephen to share that interest with me,” he says.

“And, there are also times when we all do things together. We're all going to see A Christmas Carol tonight at [New England Youth Theatre].”

Bates and his “Little” have shared all kinds of experiences.

“We've worked on a friend's plumbing system and figured out a problem with their sink for about $1.50,” he says.

After the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene, “we helped a man who lost everything get the diesel fuel out of his clothing,” Bates adds. “And then sometimes, we just like to share lunch or dinner together, too.”

“I'm glad that Stephen's father is sharing his boys with the world,” he says. “It takes a special kind of man to be willing to do that.”

When Bates was young, his father was ill with leukemia.

Several years after his father died, he spent nine years in the Army National Guard in Ohio, where he met a young man, a private who recognized his name and realized that his father had coached his Little League team.

Bates says the private “told me story after story about how when my father had taken them out for pizza after the games.”

“It was heartwarming that he remembered my father, years after his dying,” he says. “It was so good to hear that, especially since he had died 4 or 5 years before I met this young man.” .

“You never know the impact that you'll have on young people,” Bates says.

Mark Gouger, 50, Big Brother to Garret Godfrey, agrees.

“I'm from a big family, and I spent a lot of time with my nieces and nephews as they were growing up,” he says.

“I saw in the newspaper that they had a waiting list for Big Brothers Big Sisters, so I looked into it,” says Gouger, who stopped by and Youth Services and signed up.

Gouger and Garret Godfrey both enjoy sports. Garret was on the eighth-grade football team this year.

As Garret tells it, “I broke my leg in a football game and they had to do surgery on it. It was an away game in Athol, Mass. Mark comes to all my games, so he was there and went to the hospital with me.”

“Mark went with him and stayed until 11 that night. That was a big help to me,” Chet Godfrey says.

“Garret is a great kid,” Gouger adds. “We really enjoy hanging out with each other. I hope he gets half the excitement out of being together as I do with him. We get together for many more hours a month than the four monthly hours they ask you to commit to in the program, but it's such a minimal commitment and it's well worth the time.”

“It's very rewarding,” he adds. “I want to make sure that Garret makes good decisions, and is a successful member of our community in whatever path he chooses in life.”

“Both Garret and his brother Stephen love their father very much, and I give him a lot of credit for being willing to share his kids with me and Chris,” says Gouger.

For his part, Chet Godfrey calls the arrangement “a one-on-one deal.”

“Both boys seem to be able to open up and feel free to talk about things with their Big Brothers that they might not want to talk with their parents about,” their father observes.

“Big Brothers Big Sisters offers two flexible options for volunteers who want to mentor a child,” says Leitch. “The school-based program offers volunteers the opportunity to visit with a child during lunch or recess at least once a week. The community-based program allows volunteers to meet with a child during their own time and play sports, take a walk or just hang out for a least four hours a month,” she says.

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