Leroy Upshur Jr. can count on a lot of help in his job as executive director of the metropolitan Big Brothers organization. He can count on something else as well: the harder he works, the tougher his job becomes.
He offers an illustration: "Say we advertise on the air for men to volunteer as Big Brothers. We might get inquiries from a hundred men who want to know more about the program. But at the same time, we get inquiries from a hundred single mothers who want their sons in the program."
Upshur would have no complaint if the result were a wash. It never is. "If 100 men make inquiries, maybe 25 will actually sign up to become Big Brothers. Of that 25, maybe a quarter will stick it out for a year. But of 100 Little Brothers who inquire, virtually all sign up. One result is that Big Brothers of the National Capital Area has upwards of 1,000 boys waiting to be matched with Big Brothers--some 400 in Anacostia alone. Many of those will be waiting until they reach age 18 and are no longer eligible for the program.
Big Brothers is designed to provide a strong male image, companionship and guidance for fatherless boys. (Its counterpart, Big Sisters, does not limit its eligibility to motherless girls but is open to any girl between 8 and 18 who needs a one-to-one relationship with an adult woman.)
The matches are made with care, and supervised by professional social workers, with either the man, the boy, or the boy's mother having a veto over any proposed pairing. "We don't like to use volunteer case workers," says Upshur, "because volunteers don't give us the continuity we need." Even so, the local Big Brothers organization is currently operating at about half the average national cost of $650 per match per year.
Part of the money is used to underwrite the cost of Big Brother/Little Brother activities, so low income need not keep a man from volunteering his time. Big Brothers are expected to see their Little Brothers at least twice a month.
The contact, always important, is crucially so now, in light of the tremendous increase in single-parent families --particularly among blacks. Yet one of Upshur's major frustrations is the difficulty of attracting black men to be Big Brothers.
Upshur says he understands why. "Black men tend to be too occupied with their work, with maintaining their own families, and with getting themselves established. They are too busy trying to get ahead." That may be true. It is also true that black men are unavailable for the same reasons so many black Big Brothers are needed: the huge numbers of black men no longer with their families. Obviously a man who is not with his own children is unlikely to make the time to spend with someone else's.
Still, the potential importance of a man's spending a few hours with a fatherless boy is so great that the excuses don't really excuse.
And while some Big Brothers spend a lot of their own money (at least two in the Washington area are paying their Little Brothers' private-school tuition), money isn't an obstacle. Funds are available to cover everything from gasoline money to the weekend outings. Last year alone, some 23,000 tickets--including tickets to the Redskins playoff games--were donated to Big Brothers.
In an attempt to raise money for additional recruitment, Big Brothers president Joseph Zamoiski recently announced a "Super Big Brothers" program under which men too busy to participate directly can underwrite someone else's participation by donating $650. Zamoiski calls the donors "Super Big Brothers."
The program is laudable, but its name is a misnomer. The ones who deserve the "super" title are the men who find the time to spend with boys who need them.