Serving A Growing Need

Serving A Growing Need
Annual Start Something Big Breakfast Draws About 180

Daily News-Record
HARRISONBURG — Three years ago, Nehemiah Thomas struggled as a second- grader at Spotswood Elementary School.
He found it difficult to focus in class. He was antsy. He avoided reading.
Then, a James Madison University student volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Harrisonburg-Rockingham helped him become a better student.
“Before I met Becca, I didn’t like to read, and I didn’t like school very much,” said Nehemiah, 10, now a fifth-grader at Thomas Harrison Middle School. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself.”
Nehemiah told his story to about 180 people at Big Brothers Big Sisters’ annual Start Something Big Breakfast, held Tuesday at JMU’s Festival Conference and Student Center.
Photo: Melissa Thomas of Harrisonburg embraces her 10-year-old son, Nehemiah Thomas, as she reads a card for him after the Start Something Big Breakfast, a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Harrisonburg-Rockingham, on Tuesday morning. Nehemiah, a fifth-grader at Thomas Harrison Middle School, spoke about his experiences in the program. Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a national mentoring program that matches mentors, called “bigs,” with children known as “littles.” The Harrisonburg and Rockingham County chapter, which served 638 youth in 2015, is the largest in the state.
After they were matched, Nehemiah and his “big,” Becca Sopelak, met once a week after school to do homework and play games.
Through their interactions, Sopelak changed how Nehemiah sees school.
“Having a big sister … helped make learning fun for me,” said Nehemiah, the son of Melissa and Walter Thomas Jr. “Becca helped explain things in a way that I could understand.”
Nehemiah joined Claudia Portillo, 13, an eighth-grader at Thomas Harrison, and Reza Akhtar, 22, a senior at JMU, as speakers at Tuesday’s event.
Photo: James Madison University senior Reza Akhtar of Charlottesville talks about his experience having a mentor as a child immigrant from Afghanistan at the event. Akhtar is now a mentor in the organization. Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R
The three spoke about their experiences with the nonprofit, which encouraged Claudia to become more involved in extracurricular activities and allowed Akhtar to serve as a role model.
Kicking Off A New Year
In addition to hearing the three stories, the event’s 180 attendees learned about the history of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Harrisonburg-Rockingham, which Trinity Presbyterian Church started in 1976.
Over the past 40 years, the nonprofit has served more than 9,000 children through its community-based and school-based programs, GrandBigs program, enhanced school-based mentoring program, and high school program based out of East Rockingham High School.
Big Brothers Big Sisters operates on a $500,000 budget, said Sue Totty, its executive director.
“This is a very entrepreneurial organization,” Totty said. “We started a lot of new programs [and] new strategies to remain relevant in our community.”
While officials believe the nonprofit’s accomplishments are worthy of recognition, they think the big 4-0 shouldn’t be celebrated with balloons raining down from the ceiling.
Instead, they decided the year should kick off with a fundraiser to address the growing need to support local children.
Today, children served by Big Brothers Big Sisters face many challenges, including teenage pregnancy and gang violence.
“There are a lot of needs with youth,” Totty said. “I think they’re facing more challenges than ever and are in more of a need for a mentor.”
To reach its goal of serving 650 children this year, the nonprofit launched its 40th anniversary campaign at Tuesday’s breakfast.
Photo: Jane Hubbell of Harrisonburg, director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Harrisonburg-Rockingham from 1984 to 1998, watches a video during the Start Something Big Breakfast on Tuesday. Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R
During the next 40 days, Big Brothers Big Sisters is looking to raise $40,000 and gain 40 new bigs.
Totty said the campaign addresses budgeting needs and provides mentors to students who are waiting to be paired up.
About 100 children are on the nonprofit’s community- based program waiting list.
The campaign, Totty added, also ensures that Big Brothers Big Sisters of Harrisonburg-Rockingham will be around for another 40 years.
“We want to ensure to all those founders .. that we’ll be around providing good quality for more years in the future,” she said.
Contact Erin Flynn at 574-6293 or [email protected]

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