WATERVILLE — Alex Gaeth is determined to match at-risk children with nurturing adult mentors in Kennebec and Somerset counties.

The chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine, Gaeth is expanding the organization to include those counties and plans to open an office May 1 at the Alfond Youth Center.

He speaks from experience when he says such positive relationships can change children’s lives.

Head of the organization for eight years, Gaeth, 31, of Rockport, grew up in Nobleboro and graduated from Lincoln Academy in 2000.

He studied education and human development at Colby College, graduated in 2004, obtained teacher certification, taught a year or so and then moved on to the job that suited him best: heading up Big Brothers Big Sisters.

When Gaeth was 15 and a student at Lincoln Academy, a guidance counselor recommended he volunteer as a Big Brother as a way to help him get into college.

He was paired with A.J., a fifth-grader who lived with his mother and sister. They did the best they could for him, but he struggled with anger and abandonment issues, according to Gaeth.

For two years, he and A.J. spent time after school, playing football and other competitive games, with Gaeth never getting so much as a “thank-you” from the boy, he recalled.

Then one day, Gaeth got stuck in traffic and showed up late to the school to meet A.J. The boy was standing in the corridor with adult volunteers, his fist clenched, shouting, “He’s not coming; I told you he wouldn’t come!”

Then the boy spotted Gaeth.

“When he saw me, a tear rolled down his cheek,” he said. “I just melted from the inside.”

Then Gaeth realized what an impact he had made on the child’s life.

“He was just unconditionally loved and that’s all he needed,” he said.

Gaeth also realized that children do not necessarily show gratitude, although they may certainly feel it.

“We talk to our Bigs about the fact that some kids don’t know how to express gratitude — they don’t even know how they feel.”

Matching ‘Bigs’ with ‘Littles’

Children of single-parent, low-income families often struggle socially and academically.

Having an older mentor and role model can make a big difference in helping them to do better in school, boost their self-esteem and overcome behavioral problems.

The Augusta-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kennebec Valley closed its doors last July as it was having trouble recruiting and retaining a full-time director, according to Gaeth.

His organization, formerly called Big Brothers Big Sisters of Midcoast Maine, got approval from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to take on the territory formerly covered by the closed organization and expand into Kennebec and Somerset counties.

Since then, it has hired Monica Charette, special events coordinator, and Mae Slevinsky, community-based manager, and will hire a school-based manager as well.

Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs children ages 5 to 14 with mentors ages 14 to 80-plus in either a school-based or community-based setting, according to Gaeth and Charette.

“Bigs” who volunteer in a school-based setting may serve as coordinators or do direct mentoring with their “Littles” once a week for an hour or so. They help them with homework, play board games, do arts and crafts, read books, cook or just talk.

Community-based volunteers spend about two hours a week and may take their Littles to sporting events, movies, or other activities, or spend time in each other’s homes.

“We have good stories about Bigs and how they teach their Littles how to swim,” Gaeth said.

Bigs and Littles typically stay paired for a year or two. There is no cost to take part in the program.

Funding

Big Brothers Big Sisters is funded by grants, private foundation donations, United Way and money raised through special events.

Gaeth said several businesses committed to helping Big Brothers Big Sisters expand into Kennebec and Somerset counties. They include Kennebec Savings Bank, G & E Roofing Co. Inc., Augusta Fuel, Hannaford, United Way of Mid-Maine Inc., United Way of Kennebec Valley and Macdonald & Page Co. LLC.

“When we submitted our proposal to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, these businesses and organizations signed on and said, ‘We’ll make this happen,'” Gaeth said. “Their support is tremendously leveraged.”

Charette is coordinating the largest annual fundraiser, Bowl for Kids’ Sake, set for April 22-27 at venues in Waterville, Augusta and Skowhegan.

Nearly 500 people on 100 teams will try to raise $71,000 toward an overall goal of $230,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine, which covers Kennebec, Somerset, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot and Waldo counties. Anyone interested in taking part is asked to call the Big Brothers Big Sisters Rockland 0ffice at 593-0380.

About $1,000 is needed to fund each adult-child match. That amount covers screening, training of mentors and volunteers, supplies, healthful snacks at school-based programs, and professional staff who provide continuous support for each match.

Gaeth and Charette ask that adults and children who were paired up before the Kennebec Valley office closed call the organization so that they may be reunited.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine served 560 children last year and plans to increase that number to 800 in the next three years, they said.

Partnering with Alfond Center

Ken Walsh, chief executive officer of the Alfond Youth Center on North Street, offered space in the center for the Big Brothers Big Sisters office. He believes it will be a great partnership.

“It makes sense,” Walsh said Friday. “Big Brothers Big Sisters works with kids on a one-to-one basis, and we have masses of kids in our facility — over 800 a day. When I talked to Alex (Gaeth), I said, ‘This is a no-brainer. You don’t need to go anywhere else looking for kids that need Big Brothers Big Sisters.'”

Gaeth said Thursday at the Alfond Center that the facility is phenomenal in what it offers children, and he looks forward to working with Walsh.

“Having a physical presence is important,” Gaeth said. “We serve six different counties, and since January we’ve used office space in the United Way of Mid-Maine Inc. on Kennedy Memorial Drive.”

High school and college students, as well as older adults, will be matched with children, and they may use the Alfond facility.

“This is a perfect place,” Gaeth said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

 

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