More than horsing around, kids seek guidance in NIU ‘siblings’

By Wendy Neese

Imagine ditching stuffy classroom settings twice a week to play games like “Candyland” and watch movies like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

Many NIU students spend some of their spare time decorating pumpkins, painting t-shirts and swimming at the YMCA with 5-8th grade children for the same academic credit they would get attending lectures.

This is all done through a group known as the DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau. Group adviser Diane Daily said the bureau targets children too old for babysitters or those known as latch-key kids (a child who has to let himself into an empty house).

If children are not involved in Girl Scouts, Little League, or other afterschool pastimes, there’s not a whole heck of a lot for them to do between 2-5 p.m. on weekdays. Because of this, Daily wanted to create a place where kids could hang out besides the streets.

Kids can enjoy the new entertainment room stocked with pool tables, board games and munchies, or they can use the help of the volunteer tutors to do their homework. Student volunteer Coleen Hurley said seeing the same kids come into the room is rewarding. “It’s a just like a family.”

Besides this, children aged 12-21 can use the job-location network to learn what to wear or say to employers, or simply which area houses need some leaves racked.

On a more one-to-one basis, students can educate themselves on a volunteer basis by becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister through the DeKalb Family Service Agency.

“Not everyone can be one because of the time commitment,” advisor Susan Peterson said. “We don’t expect professionals, that’s what we’re here for.”

She said they carefully screen both children and volunteers before they match them. An ideal volunteer would possess excellent communication skills, common sense, and the 12 months worth of time required to spend with the child.

Since the 7-14-year-old-children are all from single-parent homes, Peterson stressed, “We never want to replace a mom or a dad.” The goal is to provide a friendly role model, she said.

So far, out of the 90 child-adult matches, 65% have been NIU students. Freshmen through graduate students can be seen holding picnics at the East lagoon, throwing the football around, or any other college-like activity, but this time it’s in the company of a child.

Even though Peterson said changes in the children do not happen overnight, results are noticeable. One Big Brother match has lasted for 8 years, and as far as Peterson knows they still call each other regularly.

As of Monday, 46-47 children were on the waiting list to get a sibling. Peterson said, “A year is not that much time out of a person’s life. They’ll learn more about themselves because they’ve helped a child. They’ve done something they didn’t have to do.”

A more specialized way to reach youths is also located in the DeKalb Family Service Agency. It is called the Learning About Handicaps Program. Student Education Coordinator Val Sawyer said last year 40 students collaborated with teachers of handicapped students.

Participants in the program have remarked “the program has given me courage not to be afraid of handicapped people.” One volunteer said, “I realize that it’s not always the people who are handicapped; it’s the world around them that make them handicapped.”

Doing volunteer work isn’t always as simple as watching cartoon movies, but it can provide life-long memories and serve as an alternative form of education.