Why let a little homework get in the way of a good thing?
Charlie Boyd and Nick Betts decided a couple years ago they had better ways to spend time together than poring over 12-year-old Nick's spelling and reading assignments.
In early 2006, they were matched in the Study Connection program run by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Colorado. Every Tuesday they'd get together for an hour at Riverview Elementary School so Charlie could help Nick with his homework.
But truthfully, it was about a half hour of homework, then a half hour of games such as Uno or Battleship or paper football or something they dubbed water-bottle-lid hockey - Nick's frantic creation, in which several players use pencils to bat the lid into a goal.
Their way to avoid homework was simple: They became a Big Brother match, meaning their new task was simply to get together once a week for an hour or two. No strings attached.
"Now it's just get right down to the fun stuff," says Nick, now a sixth-grader.
"It was great being able to go meet and have fun without doing homework first," says Boyd, a 27-year-old mortgage fraud investigator in Durango.
Those who feel the call to community service - and if you take our new president's words to heart, that means you - can hardly do better than to volunteer with Big Brothers. This region's office formed in 1984 and currently serves 73 students in the Study Connection program and 84 in the community-based "bigs" program, says the office's director, Christy Schaerer.
The goal is to provide kids with a role model - an adult who can help by being counselor, or teacher, or just plain ol' fun guy to hang around. Usually it's a bit of all three, but in this case, both Charlie and Nick emphasize the latter.
The program's "littles" come from all sorts of backgrounds. Many are from single-family households, but you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a "typical" situation. Nick's issues stemmed from the loss of his father.
In April 2004, Carrie and Robert Betts, along with their daughter and son, had returned to live in Durango. Three months later, Robert woke up early one morning feeling ill. He was worse that afternoon, and by the time he was diagnosed with a massive infection in the bloodstream, it was too late. He died of septic shock early that evening.
Afterward, both children struggled, particularly in school. Although they have a good support group from family in Durango, a counselor suggested Nick might benefit from the influence of an adult from outside the family. It can be difficult for children to express their feelings to other family members, not wanting to upset them, as well.
Nick was up for it, so Carrie contacted Big Brothers and enrolled him in the Study Connection program, which matches a tutor and student for an hour after school each week.
"I was not doing the best in school," Nick admits. "It seemed like the best solution at the time."
Meanwhile, Charlie Boyd had graduated from Western State College in Gunnison in 2005 and moved to Durango. He missed his nephews, who lived in Gunnison, and sought a way to get involved locally. He noticed a Big Brothers ad and signed up for Study Connection.
"I figured it would be fun to do something community-based with kids," he says.
Schaerer, the Big Brothers director, says her staff believes almost anyone can be a "big." No previous experience with kids is necessary. The staff can offer support or advice to anyone who needs it.
And she disagrees mightily when she hears someone say one hour a week can't make that much difference in a child's life.
"We see the difference," she says.
Over the next several months, Nick's grades improved. Eventually he didn't really need Charlie as a tutor anymore, but still wanted him as a mentor. In December 2006, Charlie became Nick's big brother.
Charlie introduced Nick to kayaking. They went ice skating and snowboarding, and Charlie, who was in the process of building a roll cage for his Jeep, even taught Nick to weld.
"Charlie's given him the opportunity to learn stuff I wouldn't be able to do with him, teach him things I wouldn't have been able to teach him," Carrie Betts says.
Nick and Charlie have much in common, and even look enough alike that they could conceivably be brothers, says Justin Tafoya, the Study Connection program manager who helped match them.
For Carrie, it's comforting to know Charlie is there if Nick needs him.
For Charlie, the get-togethers are something to look forward to during his hectic week.
"It doesn't really feel like a huge commitment," he says. "It feels like a relief sometimes, actually. ... I think it's good for the soul."
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.