By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator

Basking in the afterglow of the “Baton Rouge Big Buddy 40th Birthday Bash” block party in October, program organizers brought out a large green storage tub full of nostalgic photos and laughed as they shared “remember when …” adventure stories of driving vehicles full of underprivileged children to local activities, campouts and on road trips so they could dream about who they could become.

Camping trips were a highlight for children served by the Big Buddy Program. Photos provided by Galynne Mack

 

Sadly, the organizers noted, today’s unstable world calls for a mound of paperwork to be completed before they can do the things they did, which would have made it nearly impossible for the program to launch. But by being “in the right place at the right time” and the commitment of the faith community and students at Christ the King Church at LSU, the program thrives.

In 1975, before the pre-school programs became prevalent, Mary West desired to teach underprivileged children.

“I had the house and I was already teaching my children,” said West.

To get an introduction into their neighborhoods, West approached a woman in the Home Start Program, which assists families in finding housing. A teacher for the program brought children to her house for the first year. After that, West drove her SUV into the housing projects in the Roosevelt, East, Garfield and McKinley streets areas, picked up kids and taught them in her home.

“I got to know the mothers, and in some situations the fathers and the neighbors in the neighborhoods,” West said.

West got to know the older siblings of the children she taught.

Children served by the Big Buddy were often transported by van in the program’s early days.

“They had to walk to school and didn’t have any after-school activities. They were just hanging out,” said West.

West was attending Christ the King and dropped off her kids for childcare provided by LSU students. The students talked to West about an off-campus mentoring class project they were doing called “The Big Buddy Program” and they wanted to continue working with the kids after the class was over.

West partnered with the students and  formalized the program with Jim Geisler, who was its first executive director. Members of the Christ the King social justice committee were on the first board of directors.

CTK students and volunteers cleared a field to turn into a park. Big Buddy volunteers collected money to buy the field, which was matched by BREC and it became a Roosevelt Street BREC park.

In addition to taking kids to the park, big buddies would take their little buddies to the library, state capitol or to watch the boats on the river.

Ralph Stephens, an original Big Buddy board member, mentor and law student at LSU when Big Buddy started, said the trips to the library meant a lot to the little buddies because many of them did not have a book in their home, other than the Bible.

“I would be asked, ‘What do CPAs do? What do lawyers do?’ ” said Stephens, who was happy to help children envision a brighter future.

Nancy Keegan, who was a member of Christ the King and original staff member of Big Buddy said, “The children gave me love and laughter.”

Keegan said they taught her as much as she taught them.

“They showed amazing resilience and strength,” Keegan said. “They gave me many amazing insights into life.”

What the kids wanted most, according to Stephens and Keegan, was to have fun.

A highlight for the kids was piling up in cars and going to Leo’s Roller Rink on North Street. They wore black T-shirts with yellow print that said, “Sky Hawks.”
They also sang at Kiwanis Club meetings.

“They (children) would say, ‘Okay, page 22, Old MacDonald had a Farm (their standard song to sing in public),’ ” beamed Galynne Mack, current executive director of Big Buddy and director of religious education and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at St. Francis Xavier Church in Baton Rouge. She has been involved with Big Buddy since the 1980s.

Mack and West also talked about early camping trips at a camp near what was then rural Flannery Road.

“You walked through the gates and you knew you were in the wilderness,” said West. Big Buddy later partnered with Camp Fire Boys and Girls and the children camped, free of charge, at Camp Singing Waters in Holden.

Other good times included Big Buddy mentors bouncing the children on an Army blanket.

The children also took trips to Houston for a leadership conference and watched the Houston Astros play. This was a trip of a lifetime for children who had never left their neighborhoods.

 

While big buddies had a lot of fun with the children, they were more than fair weather friends. 

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the flood of 2016, Big Buddy partnered with Campfire Boys and Girls and provided activities for kids whose schools were closed as well as after-school activities for those who were in school.

“The kids were out of school with nothing to do, parents were stressed, so we thought, ‘What can we do?’ ” said Mack. “What we can do is gather up our sticks, pipe cleaners and provide them with something to do.”

They worked with BREC to provide group activities as well.

Bid Buddy leaders received training during those times from a national agency which works with kids in trauma, which has proven valuable even today because of shootings and other societal problems, Mack noted.

Big Buddy’s mission remains to help children make good decisions and to be their advocates. It helps middle school and high school students prepare for post-graduation and to go into the workforce and college. They also assist schools in high-poverty areas to find funding.

Big Buddy educates the community on the vital role youth play in the community’s future.

“Everything we do in the community should have a young people’s component – what are we doing for our youth? What are we doing to help with early childhood education?” Mack said.

“What we are doing for our young people is good for all people. Young people need to understand character, about loving others and working together for a better community,” he added.

To learn more about Big Buddy, visit bigbuddyprogram.org.