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Waiting For A Friend Big Brothers, Sisters Put Kids On Hold For Lack Of Funds, Volunteers

Andrew is a little big man.

At 7, he’s the biggest kid in his first grade, loves to wrestle and wants to learn to ride in-line skates. His mother tries to help, but he needs someone bigger.

He asked for a Big Brother - six months ago.

“Have patience,” says his mother, Rhonda King. “God will send us the right one.”

Maybe in March. An annual pizza and bowling event has become a critical drive for Big Brothers and Sisters of Spokane County to find volunteers and $240,000 in bingo money that has been lost to casinos.

The agency blames competition from tribal gaming for cutting nearly a quarter of its budget.

One caseworker left and a supervisor has been laid off. Money spent on recruiting volunteers is down 25 percent.

The program that helps match children of single parents with carefully screened adult volunteers is shrinking. In four years, the number of annual matches has dropped from 275 to 238.

“It’s frustrating,” said executive director Don Kaufman. “We know there are plenty of kids in need and another 80 waiting to be matched and we also know there are volunteers out there.”

In 1992, Big Brothers and Sisters netted most of its budget - $690,247 - from its bingo center at 930 N. Monroe. Bingo was so lucrative the agency donated to other youth services and gave money back to United Way.

Bingo now raises $450,000 of the annual $623,000 budget. Staff has forgone pay raises for two years, ratcheted back its own insurance plan and hired a development director.

Other non-profit agencies that use bingo to raise money, such as The Spokane Guilds’ School and Spokane Youth Sports, have felt a similar sting. But neither relied as heavily on bingo as Big Brothers and Sisters.

The agency is no longer a United Way member so it can raise more money on its own.

In the long term, Kaufman and others hope satellite bingo, in which smaller halls can offer larger prizes by playing together, will help the agency compete with tribal casinos and their slot machines, video pull tabs and mega-bingo.

A bill allowing satellite bingo is before the Legislature.

The agency already got one break when the city of Spokane cut taxes on non-profit bingo games 3 percent over three years.

Staff members hope to attract 400 teams to the March Bowl for Kids’ Sake. The event, held in two-hour competitions at area bowling alleys all month, is an increasingly important way to find money and people like Don Grant. The 24-year-old married father of one pledged money for a bowler last year and wound up being recruited. He now meets three times a month with 9-year-old James Suckow, taking him fishing on Long Lake, riding go-karts and shopping for a “Grim Reaper dude” Halloween costume.

“I’ve always had a mother and father, I was lucky,” said the sales representative at Keystone Packaging. The hardest part, he added, has been finding time to get together.

Rhonda King doesn’t want a Big Brother’s time for Andrew as much as his perspective.

“I want someone to show him guy things; that you don’t have to be tough to fit in, that it’s what inside what counts, that men do work around the house.”

She gets up each day at 3 a.m. to study and then go to Holy Family Hospital, where she is training as a radiology technician.

Andrew, an Evergreen Elementary student, is one of 82 children ready to be matched and another 46 who have applied.

Matches are based on age, personality and interests. They also may depend on neighborhoods - in order to make the meetings as easy as possible.

“I tell the boys anything less than a year (of waiting) is a real gift,” said caseworker Sue Grim. “But in a child’s life that’s a long time.”

A private study of eight programs nationwide revealed kids who had a Big Brother or Sister were about half as likely to use drugs or skip school, and 27 percent less likely to start drinking alcohol.

There are about twice as many Big Brothers needed as Big Sisters. Most girls come into the program almost as after-thoughts or “by-products” after their brothers apply, Grim says.

Mothers often assume because a girl has her mother she doesn’t need a Big Sister.

“The (Big Sister) isn’t a replacement, they’re an addition,” Grim said. “The more people who care about you the better. You can’t have too many people who love you, you just can’t.”

At Bowl for Kids Sake, staff members will actively recruit volunteers. Kaufman and directors at the Guild School and Youth Sports are watching to see what will happen next in gaming.

Andrew, meanwhile, wants to learn to ride a bike.

“He needs somebody,” King says. “It just doesn’t cut it being female. I can’t get him to keep his belt on, he’s got plumber pants and when I tell him to tuck his shirt in, he says ‘no no Mom, that’s not cool.’

“He just doesn’t get it from me.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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