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Harvard students are perhaps less enthusiastic about changing the system than they once were, but they are still concerned about making the existing system more humane--at least, so believe the staff members of the Big Sister and Big Brother Associations of Boston.
This year, 35 Harvard students--more than any other year--have volunteered to serve as big sisters or big brothers to children in need of companionship.
Mike Ryan, a staff worker at the Big Brother Association of Boston, said this week that more students from Harvard agree to become big brothers or sisters than students from other area schools.
Harvard students do a particularly impressive job and are very reliable, Ryan said.
"These kids need a role model as well as companionship," Ryan said. "If a guy is in college--especially Harvard--this will open up the young guys' eyes. They'll learn that one day they'll have to fend for themselves and be concerned about getting an education and a job."
The children in the program are usually between the ages of 7 to 12 and come from one-parent families in the lower income brackets.
Big brothers are expected to see their younger counterparts about once a week, but a great deal of flexibility is allowed as long as the little brothers are able to believe their older friends will not abandon them.
"One of the problems is that the younger kid develops unrealistic expectations about how often he can see his older 'brother'," Ryan said, adding, "We try hard to make sure the younger kids realize that their brothers lead busy lives."
Sharing the Wealth
Although there are currently 623 big brothers in the Boston area, there are never enough to go around. Children must often wait more than a year before they can be matched with a companion, Ryan said.
But despite the shortage, becoming a big brother or sister is not simply a matter of deciding to sacrifice some time. There is a screening process with four rigorous interviews.
Carol Huntington, executive director of Big Sisters Association of Boston, said that 200 children are waiting for big sisters and that her association was especially in need of minority women.
"The interviews are brutal. Well, not brutal but comprehensive," Robert T. Puopolo '79, a big brother volunteer, said yesterday. "When they ask for references, they aren't kidding around. They send out questionnaires asking them, 'Would you trust your children with this person?'" he added.
But Ryan said that although the interviews are "thorough" in order to "weed out the weirdos," he was sure that they are much less painful than Harvard admission interviews.
Robert Cochran '79, a Harvard big brother, said this week his reasons for becoming a big brother were not simply altruistic.
"It's not something you should do just for the kid. You have as much as he does. It's given me an incentive to get out and do things I might not have done," Cochran said.
Cochran added, however, he felt "satisfied" with himself as a person when he saw the "terrible conditions my little brother lived in."
"With a big brother, he gets to see a side of the world he has never seen," Cochran said. "And he has someone to talk to, to care about him. Sometimes he calls me up. He doesn't have anything to say really. But it just makes him happy to know somebody is out there."
But whatever motivates students to become big brothers, the results are the same--happy kids, staff workers for the associations said.
"Harvard has a way of increasing your social guilt," Puopolo said. "I guess this is my way of mollifying it.
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