When Nick was 3 years old, his father, Doug Blanchette, died of cancer at the age of 41.
As Nick got older, his mother, Jackie DeCosta of Washington, worried that an adult male role model was absent from his life because many of his male relatives live out of state. So when a cousin told her about the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh program, she signed him up.
Now 8, Nick has formed a close relationship with Trent Carlson, a 29-year-old assistant project manager for Waller Corp., since they were paired two years ago.
Carlson has taken Nick to the Children’s Museum, Chuck E. Cheese, to play golf and to the park to play catch and throw around a football. He also helped Nick with school projects and accompanied him to Washington School District’s annual fathers walk and breakfast.
“I think it’s been very important for him. I think it builds his confidence level,” said DeCosta, an accountant and active mom who is involved in the Parent Faculty Organization at Washington Elementary School and is a team mom for Nick’s sports teams. “I try to be a part of everything Nick does. But there are some things where it’s good for him to get a guy’s perspective. There are some things he doesn’t want to talk to his mom about, and it’s nice that he’s got someone aside from me that he can call if he wants to. It’s comforting knowing he’s got somebody else he feels comfortable with besides me.”
It’s not unusual for children to grow up without a father in the home today. Twenty-four million American children – one in three – are growing up in homes without their biological fathers, according to the 2011 Census.
But a father’s presence has a tremendous impact on children’s lives. Studies show that children who have a father in their lives are more likely to have more positive experiences, relationships, successes and self-esteem.
“The importance of having healthy father figures cannot be overstated because behavior is learned, not inherited. We learn what is modeled for us,” said counselor Mike Pecosh of Pecosh Counseling and Consulting in South Franklin Township, who was a foster child before his parents adopted him and two other foster children. “Fathers and father figures help males transition from self-centered adolescence to honorable manhood. Father figures can help us to develop self-monitoring and to think of the long-term consequences of our decisions. Men think; boys react.”
Carlson had long considered mentoring a child.
“I got into it because I wanted to help a young kid out and serve as a good role model and help make his life better, but I think he’s helped me more than anything else,” said Carlson. “I like to see him do well. Most of that has to do with his mom and how she’s brought him, up, but I take a little bit of pride in how well he’s doing.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters has been in this area since 1965. In that time, it has matched more than 17,000 youths with adult mentors.
Currently, Big Brothers has about 35 children waiting for a match in Washington and Greene counties.
And research shows that “Bigs” really do have an impact on children.
Sara Thomas, program coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Washington and Greene counties, said kids in the program are 86 percent more likely to go to college, 46 percent less likely to start using drugs and 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school.
It doesn’t take a huge time commitment, or a special person, to make a difference in the life of a child as a mentor. Big Brothers must make a one-year commitment to mentoring, which involves getting together with the little brother at least twice a month.
Big Brothers also offers a site-based program where Bigs and Littles share one hour each week, usually at school, during the academic year.
“All you have to do is be someone who cares about a kid and can make a commitment to be there, two times a month,” said Thomas.
The average length of a match is 24 months, but matches can last a lifetime.
Pecosh said his adoptive father, who served on his local school board and volunteered his time as a firefighter and at his church, taught him the importance of community, faith and giving back.
He still turns to his father for advice.
“While we don’t always agree, he is still the best man that I know, and I am proud to bear his name. I shudder to think what my life would have been like without my father and mother adopting me and my brothers,” said Pecosh.
Father figures can be uncles, cousins, coaches or youth leaders who help fill the void for fatherless children.
Carlson’s life will change this fall: He is getting married on Sept. 27.
But he still plans to be a Big Brother.
“I take this very seriously. I like being around Nick,” said Carlson. “He’s funny, he’s a really good athlete, he’s a great student and he’s really easy to be around. I like to see him so excited and enthusiastic. I’m happy we’re in each other’s lives.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters needs volunteers. For information, call the Big Brothers Big Sisters Washington office at 724-228-9191.