Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California is putting out a distress call.
It desperately needs mentors.
The organization has long been known for recruiting adults to serve as role models for potentially at-risk or runaway kids, boys and girls ages 6-14, in Fresno, Madera, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties.
A mentor in the community-based program is a "big." A kid is a "little." Problem is, there is an increasing number of littles — more than the number of bigs available.
"The need is great," says Diane Phakonekham, program director with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California. "We want the kids to do better."
The organization has a record number of active matches — 278, nearly 100 more than in 2013 when there were 181 active matches. In 2012, 160 bigs/littles were active.
As of March 3, however, 125 kids were on a waiting list for mentors — 76 boys, 49 girls.
Individual photos of the kids are displayed in the headquarters office on North Fulton Street under the heading: "Waiting for a Big."
The organization conducts a house-cleaning process monthly to ensure the numbers are accurate. Some kids who reach the age limit — and still haven't been matched — are dropped from the list.
"It breaks my heart," Phakonekham says. "Some have been waiting for six months."
Big Brothers Big Sisters also keeps a list of another group — parents wanting to just begin the application process for their kids.
Littles have to fulfill requirements, including age and the fact they are in a nontraditional family, such as foster care or with just a single parent or grandparent.
Big Brothers Big Sisters tries hard to recruit mentors, especially at central San Joaquin Valley vendor fairs and other events.
"We say, 'Please, you don't have to be rich to be a mentor. You have to have a rich heart, dedication and passion to better the life of a child,' " Phakonekham says.
"These kids need to see beyond their neighborhood, where there could be drugs or prostitution. It's the introduction of life skills."
But, she says, many responses are coming back: " 'We're busy.' ... 'We don't have the time to commit.' ... 'We're afraid.' "
Chris Toth, an administrative assistant at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California who specializes in social media and marketing, says mentoring can be a couple of hours a week or every other week — something as simple as just being there.
"It's someone to ask a kid, 'How was your day?' " he says. "They don't realize it's not as huge a deal as they think."
Mentors in the program say it is important that adults invest in the lives of at-risk kids.
Carmen Hernandez, 29, who works in communication and graphic design for the Fresno Association of Realtors, has served as a big for Melissa Martinez, 13, a seventh-grade student at Fort Miller Middle School in Fresno, for more than four years.
After Hernandez finished work recently, she picked up Melissa at her home and they walked Hernandez's toy poodle, Teddy, in Hernandez's neighborhood before they capped their time together with ice cream.
Other times, Hernandez has taken Melissa to bounce on trampolines, to bowl or just run errands.
"It doesn't have to be something big," Hernandez says. "I know she is happy when I take the time to just get her. She is happy with anything."
Hernandez says the important thing is Melissa knows she is there for her.
"You try to bring a light to their life," Hernandez says. "You lead them in a positive direction, where they may not have realized what is possible if they didn't have a Big Brother or Big Sister.
"You influence them in the smallest ways that help them in the biggest ways. Melissa will always be a member of my family from here on out."
Melissa, who is from a family of five, says she can't imagine what life would be without Hernandez: "It means a lot because she's there for me when I need someone to talk to about stuff — things that are going on."
How to help
To apply to be a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California community-based program, go online to www.bigs.org or call (559) 268-2447.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304, firstname.lastname@example.org or @ronorozco_bee on Twitter.