Buddies make impact on lives in the valley | AspenTimes.com

Buddies make impact on lives in the valley

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Big Buddy Will Rutledge and Little Buddy Bode enjoy a thrilling ride at Glenwood Caverns together. The Buddy Program served 973 youth and their families from Carbondale to Aspen in 2013.

Christian, a local 15-year-old who is deaf in one ear, struggled to get along with his peers when he was younger but gained confidence through his Big Buddy and his musical talent.

Christian used to be shy and reserved, said Heather Hicks, the director of recruitment for the Buddy Program and former caseworker. He didn't speak English very well and went through some difficulties in his past, but through his Big Buddy, "this kid has blossomed," she said.

"He's respected at his school, where before he was being bullied," Hicks said. "He's also developed an amazing musical talent as a guitar player. It's a great success story."

Christian's Big Buddy is Samuel Bernal, who works for KPVW radio in Aspen. Bernal is from Mexico City and now lives in Basalt, where he had to adjust to living in such a small, mountain community. With his family still in Mexico, Bernal wanted to use his free time to help within his community and became a Big Buddy to Christian four years ago. Christian also is originally from Mexico.

"There is no better investment for our community than helping a young person who might not have the same advantages that other kids do," Bernal said. "When I first met Christian, he was very shy and quiet, but that was also normal for an 11-year-old. It took time and patience to allow him to feel comfortable around me, but once that happened, I could see the difference."

Sometimes Bernal and Christian talk a lot, other times they enjoy listening to music together.

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"I've told him what a wonderful gift his music is. It will allow him to express himself in song whether he's happy or sad," Bernal said. "The Buddy Program provided the platform that was needed to connect with Christian. Our relationship has progressed to the point where I can say I'm sure we'll be friends the rest of our lives."

community Buddies for more than 40 years

Since 1973, the Buddy Program has offered mentoring services and matched Big Buddies with Little Buddies throughout the valley.

Little Buddies are local youth between the ages of 6 and 18 that are usually referred to the program by teachers, counselors, parents or themselves. The program looks for Big Buddies that share a commitment to make a difference in the life of a Little Buddy.

Last year, the program served 973 youth from Carbondale to Aspen, representing a 10 percent increase in participation from 2012.

Executive Director David Houggy is proud of the Buddy Program's success and influences but thinks there's a misconception about the program he hopes to change.

"We're a lot more than an adult and kid kicking a soccer ball around once a week," Houggy said. "We're trying to get word out about what we do."

People have some misconceptions that the program pairs adult mentors with kids and away they go, he said.

"The reality is, we've done a lot of work up to that point," Houggy said. "We have to recruit that Big Buddy, screen them and carefully pair that buddy with the right kid where we know they'll have things to do together."

Houggy explained that once the pair is matched, they're assigned a case manager who is responsible for that pair. There are currently four case managers on staff and each has between 30 and 40 pairs that they are in touch with every two weeks. They provide advice and guidance when needed.

"What we're really doing is providing a social service," Houggy said. "We provide training to the Big Buddies and to the parents of the Little Buddies so they know the services we can provide and other services that other organizations offer."

If a kid needs something like a hearing aid or glasses, for example, the case manager works with the family to offer guidance with those things, Houggy said. The case managers also work with the family situations and offer help with issues like neglect, abuse, and strained martial situations, he said.

"We also help provide some funding to help these kids have an opportunity to do some things they enjoy," Houggy said.

Buddies in the schools

The program also pays a small stipend to staff members at schools to keep an eye on the buddies as well as working with school teachers and counselors to identify kids that should be in the program.

There's a peer-to-peer program that matches a high school student that mentors a younger student, meeting once a week at school. It's the biggest program run by the Buddy Program with 400 students.

The Experiential Program is in its second year at Roaring Fork High School. The program is a yearlong outdoor leadership class with 13 students, three hours a week.

"The kids learn all about the outdoors," Houggy said. "They're taught wilderness ethics, first aid and CPR, they get avalanche training and learn to read and write topographic maps. They go hiking and learn about environmental issues and do community service projects. They'll take several hut trips where they put some of their orienteering knowledge into practice. This program encourages leadership and often proves to these kids that they can be successful."

'i knew this was it'

Sarah Fedishen works at the Family Resource Center for the Roaring Fork School District. She's also a Basalt High graduate who returned to the valley after attending college and wanted to give something back to her community.

"When I found the Buddy Program, I knew this was it," Fedishen said. "I was paired with my Little Buddy, Carla, almost six years ago."

Fedishen said Carla was 11 when they first met and needed someone to talk to outside of her mother and three sisters.

"She was very anxious and scattered," Fedishen said. "She had a lot of energy and didn't know what to do with it. Now she's learned to channel that energy and it's opening doors for her. I feel like our relationship through the Buddy Program has given Carla the confidence to try new avenues in life, like art and sports. It's been so rewarding to watch her navigate through life as she grows older. She's always wanted to be independent and accountable, which is super empowering for her. Recently, she got her first job. Seeing her succeed has made me very proud. There's no doubt she's part of my family now. We've developed a solid relationship and there's no going back."

Looking for more buddies

Even with the increase in participation last year, the program needs Big Buddies, particularly males in the Carbondale area. It also could use more funding to hire more case managers. In 2013, there were still more than 30 Little Buddies waiting to be matched with a Big Buddy.

"The need is there," Hicks said. "With more funds, we can help bring out some new programs and help even more buddies."

People can help the program by volunteering as a buddy or donating funds. Dec. 2 is the National Day of Giving and the program hopes people will help in any way possible. For more information on the program or for help donating, call 970-920-2130.

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com

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