Big Brothers Big Sisters making a difference for at-risk youth in Utah

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Big Brother Nate Di Palma and his Little Brother, Daniel. (Courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah)

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(ABC4) – Nate Di Palma would be lying to say he’s not a little nervous. While speaking to ABC4 on the phone, he is en-route to pick up his friend, 15-year-old Daniel. Having just passed the exam for his learner’s permit, Di Palma is allowing Daniel to drive his car.

A seasoned marketing professional and a world-record holder in speedskating, Di Palma texts ABC4 after the call, saying “Let’s wish the kid luck,” adding a fingers-crossed emoji.

Chances are, however, regardless of how Daniel’s time behind the wheel turns it out, Di Palma will still pick him up for another activity a couple of times this month. They’ve been doing so for the last four years.

Di Palma and Daniel are both a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah, an organization that pairs at-risk youth, many of whom have challenging home lives, with adult figures in the community. Using a one-on-one mentoring model, the group hopes to enable children who come from a variety of difficult backgrounds with the best possible chance at a productive future.

“The youth that we serve are living in adversity, which looks like a lot of different things. Some of the kids that we serve have incarcerated parents or are living in poverty. Some of the kids, maybe their mom is working a lot so they are just looking for another caring and consistent adult to do things with,” explains Big Brothers Big Sisters spokesperson Lauren Judkins. “They’re just normal kids, and they really just want someone to spend time with them, listen, and have a positive role model.”

Like Di Palma, Judkins is also a Big. She and her Little Sister have plans to get a snow cone later on Wednesday night to cool off during the intense heatwave the area is experiencing. The two also enjoy going to the library to read and doing arts and crafts.

“I look forward to the time that I’m going to spend with my Little,” she explains.

The problem that the organization faces right now is a shortage of male mentors willing to participate. At the moment, around 80 young men are waiting to be matched with their Big Brother. In an effort to recruit more Bigs, the group has arranged for an orientation and information meeting on Wednesday night at Beehive Distilling brewery as part of its Men to Mentor campaign. The goal is sign up 100 men in 100 days to become Big Brothers.

The importance of a mentor is invaluable, according to Di Palma. He recalls growing up without much of a father figure in his life. As he reached young adulthood, his neighbor, Bill, whom Di Palma would mow the lawn for while living in the Midwest, made a large impression on him. Knowing that Di Palma wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of attending college at DePaul University, Bill offered to provide a great deal of support.

Another mentor in Di Palma’s life was Kirk, who owned an upscale barbershop in a ritzy Chicago neighborhood. As Di Palma started to make his name as a world-class inline speed skater, Kirk offered him a job in his shop and would frequently include him in conversations with some of the area’s most influential figures.

Additionally, Kirk was one who insisted on driving Di Palma to Milwaukee, which was at the time the main training hub for the U.S. Speedskating team, so the rollerblading star could give it a shot on the ice. A few National Championships and world records later, Di Palma gives credit to Kirk for shaping him not only into a great athlete, but into who he is as a person today.

While both Bill and Kirk have since passed away, paying it forward by joining Big Brothers was a logical step for Di Palma, who has since made his home in Utah.

“I was just reminiscing on the way I grew up, and the male figures that were in my life that helped mentor me and it just felt right to continue the cycle and become a mentor myself. So I reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters, and we started the process and I think it was like four months later, six months later, I was a Big Brother,” he shares.

You don’t need to be a world-class athlete to become a Big Brother or Big Sister. Judkins shares that while the background checks and interview process can be a bit daunting, the group is looking for all kinds of people to join to help find a perfect match of interests and backgrounds for their youth clientele.

“There is no one type of person that can be a mentor. You know some people say, ‘I don’t think I can be a mentor, I’m you know, I’m not this or I’m not that’ and that’s not the case,” she states. “We want every type of person from different backgrounds. Your life experience will help these kids.”

Those who can’t give a full commitment to being a Big Brother or Big Sister can still support the program’s vision with monetary or clothing donations. But to those like Di Palma, who are willing to give their time to help in a child’s development, the rewards are worth it.

“I thought that it was going to be more of a one-sided street as far as energy and investment. It came to my surprise, how much I was rewarded and how much I felt fulfilled. I didn’t realize that I would get as much as I was giving, just by watching a young man develop, being there for him, supporting him,” Di Palma explains. “It’s been surprisingly rewarding. Now I just expect that it’s always going to be that way because it has been consistently that way every time we’ve gotten together.”

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