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Big influence: Mentor sets example for 11-year-old local boy

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. James Strickland is a mentor to Marquez Gill in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta program.

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. James Strickland is a mentor to Marquez Gill in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta program.

When James Strickland first became a mentor to Marquez Gill through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, he wondered how he could teach the 11-year-old important life lessons, such as do your best in school and follow the rules.

Strickland quickly figured out that Marquez learned best by example.

"He picks up on a lot of stuff I'm doing just by watching me and the way I interact with my wife and talk to people," said Strickland, 28.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program, celebrating its 50th anniversary, accepts at-risk boys and girls and matches them with a male or female role model. Most come from single parent homes in which the father is absent, sometimes incarcerated.

The age range for child participants is between 6 and 12.

"We start young because this is the time when bad habits or behaviors form and we want to get involved as early as possible," said Miranda Bryen, project manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, which serves 3,400 children in a 12-county area.

Strickland is a sought after commodity for BBBSMA because he's a man. While the program has an overabundance of women volunteers, roughly 900 boys await a match with a Big Brother.

That's because there are more boys than girls enrolled in the program and BBBSMA needs to beef up its outreach to male volunteers, according to Bryen.

"We haven't done as good a job at educating men on how easy it is," she said.

Big volunteers spend eight hours per month with their Littles and are asked to stay with their match for at least two years.

"That's how long it takes to make a true connection with a child and really gain their trust," Bryen said.

Bigs must have no felony convictions or DUI arrests and ideally they should not be attending college because of the extended time commitment required. Single men work best because their schedules are more flexible, but married men with no children may also fit well into the program.

"Our Big Brothers, they're not athletes, they're not coaches or science wizards or tutors. They're just normal people," Bryen said. "You just have to be a regular guy who doesn't mind hanging out with a kid."

Social workers analyze Bigs and Littles based on geography, personality and interests, and pairs them with each other accordingly. The first meeting takes place with a Big, a Little and his mother or caretaker.

If all agree on the match, then the program checks on the Big and the Little monthly for 18 months and then quarterly after that time.

Strickland, who works as assistant director for records management for Georgia Perimeter College, got matched with Marquez two years ago. He drives from his DeKalb County home every other weekend to pick up Marquez, a sixth-grader who resides in Newton County.

Marquez's favorite activity is taking Strickland's dogs to the dog park. They also attend movies, ice skate and swim. But sometimes they just do stuff around the house, like watch a football game or change oil in the car.

Strickland said altruism inspired him to join the program but now his bond with Marquez keeps him involved.

"Now, it's like 'I better go pick up my little brother,'" Strickland said. "I can't see him getting grown and me not talking to him."

Lobrina Gill, Marquez's mother, said Strickland has helped her son mature and develop integrity and honesty. He also reinforces her parenting philosophy by teaching Marquez that poor decisions lead to consequences.

Lobrina Gill said that at first she hesitated to approve the match because of the difference in race between Strickland and her son. But, she's glad she gave it a shot.

"He's been more than a friend to Marquez," she said. "I'm really glad I accepted the match. It definitely worked."

For more information, visit www.bbbsatl.org or call 404-601-7000.