CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the boy named Reuben, featured midway through the story, had autism. This was based on what Knox Pages reporter Grant Pepper understood to be reliable information at the time. Knox Pages has since learned that this information was incorrect, and the story has been updated accordingly.
MOUNT VERNON – When Noah Hubbard, Harry Ogle and Charlie Bonham were juniors at Mount Vernon High School – just 17 years old, or close to it – they walked into Christine Keaton’s classroom and plopped down on the smooth, black couches near the back. They came armed with concerns; Keaton sat across from them and listened.
“This is not working,” they said.
The trio had just finished football season, and consequently, the end of that fall’s Big Brothers experience. The club designed to pair high school football players with middle school students who might need mentorship or a listening ear, however, was not running up to their standards.
The sessions were chaotic and ineffective. They met once a month in the middle school lunchroom, where conversation bounced distractedly off the walls. The middle school students used it as an opportunity to get out of class, and there were mixed levels of commitment from the high school contingent.
It was time for a change, the trio said. They proceeded to lay out a detailed plan for the future of the program, including an application process and a more individualized mentorship experience. They wanted to get all high school student-athletes involved, not just football players, and they wanted girls to join the program as well.
Roughly 18 months later, Keaton said the program had taken an 180-degree turn.
“It’s not what we envisioned. It’s definitely not what I envisioned,” said Keaton, who handles administrative duties for the student-run club. “It’s way better than I envisioned, because of their commitment to it.”
The recently rebranded 'Big Sibs' program at MVHS, once a well-meaning but disorganized club, has become a shining example of the potential of peer-to-peer mentorship. There were 17 big sibs and 20 little sibs involved last year (Hubbard, Ogle and Bonham each had two), and the results have been eye-popping; the middle school students are gaining confidence and motivation, and their grades are improving as a result.
But to Hubbard, Ogle and Bonham – all 2019 graduates – the experience was about far more than just academic success. The grades were a byproduct of everything else.
“This is easily the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Ogle said during his last week of high school. Hubbard and Bonham nodded in agreement.
“This is the most meaningful thing I’ve done to-date, easily.”
When Bonham first met Reuben, he was a sophomore at MVHS.
Keaton was holding an end-of-the-year meeting for the high schoolers and middle schoolers, to see who would be involved in the Big Brothers program next year. Pairs had not been chosen yet.
When they gathered for a picture at the end of the meeting, one boy removed himself from the crowd. He stood by the corner – arms crossed, facing the opposite direction, unresponsive to verbal cues.
The next day, Bonham returned to ask Keaton a question.
“Mrs. Keaton, you know the boy that was removed yesterday at our meeting?”
“Yes…” she replied.
“I want him.”
What ensued would be one of the most challenging – but rewarding – experiences of Bonham’s young life.
For the first three months of the 2017-18 school year, Reuben refused to talk. He seemed generally uncomfortable in social settings, Bonham said. Slowly but surely, however, Reuben began to open up.
When Bonham would ask Reuben how his day went, he’d answer. They began playing games together and learning more about each other. By the end of the 2018-19 school year, Reuben was one of the most talkative little sibs in the bunch.
“Honestly, I feel like no one had really tried to make an effort to kind of be his friend,” Bonham said. “He still struggles in social situations, but I think he is now able to trust me.”
Bonham’s persistence paid off. Reuben, once silent and disengaged in the classroom, now couldn’t stop talking. The same kid who turned away from the group picture a year prior was skipping into a trampoline park during the Big Sibs end-of-the-year party last May, laughing and playing with friends.
“It could have been a collision of all kinds of things, but I said, ‘We’re going to own it,’” Keaton said of Bonham's role in Reuben's improvement. “Because Charlie would do anything to try to meet him where he was. He never made his little sib come to him, like, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ He always figured it out.”
This story is not uncommon among those involved with the Big Sibs program. Miracles like this happen often. To Keaton and Ben Sanders, the Mount Vernon Middle School guidance counselor who helps run the program, it’s because of the changes implemented by Bonham, Hubbard and Ogle the year prior.
The trio chose to open the program up, while simultaneously making it more selective. The opportunity to serve as a big sib would be open to all student-athletes (and this year, to all students in general), but there would be an application process. They presented this application when they came to meet with Keaton in November 2017.
It includes written-response questions about why prospective big sibs would want to join the program, “what makes you a good teammate” and how they’d plan on helping their little sibling. It also displays an acronym, created by the trio: GRIT. It stands for guidance, responsibility, integrity and time – the four pillars on which they believed the program should stand.
“These three guys, they hand-picked people and they were very specific,” Keaton recalled. “Like, ‘We’re looking for the best.’”
Hubbard, Ogle and Bonham also increased the time commitment involved with the program, and they changed the meeting setting to make it more compatible for growth. Whereas before, meetings were held once a month in the cafeteria, now each pair would be required to meet once a week in a one-on-one classroom setting. It’d be a year-round endeavor, instead of just during football season.
Many big sibs, however, would still manage to go above and beyond. They’d meet with their little sib after school, invite them to family events, and seamlessly integrate them into their daily lives.
“A lot of these kids just need a little bit of motivation, because they don’t have that at home. They just need you to be there for them and support them, and encourage them to do well,” Ogle said. “If someone else wants them to do well, they’re much more likely to do well. Just socially, emotionally, academically.”
Sanders would work with middle school teachers to let the little sibs out of class every week. This used to be a struggle, he said, as teachers would be hesitant to give up an at-risk student for a whole period.
“Now, I don’t have any issues,” Sanders said. “The teachers have seen it, they’re seeing what it does. They’re buying into it.”
In less than a year, Big Sibs went from a mandatory extracurricular to a competitive opportunity. The students whose applications were accepted wanted to be there – and the results spoke for themselves.
The letters the little sibs sent to their big sibs at the end of last year included sentences like “Thank you for being with me and helping me through the toughest times,” and “I have no idea what I would have done without you.”
One letter concluded like this:
“I plan on following in your footsteps and becoming a big [sib] like you, so I can inspire people to work harder and to [be] better like you inspired me.”
The middle-schoolers involved in Big Sibs sometimes come from difficult home situations.
What they need more than anything else, Ogle said, is time. They need someone to be there for them. Someone to listen, someone to respond, someone to care.
It’s why he spent two-and-a-half hours with one of his little sibs every Friday afternoon, talking about life and doing homework, before taking him out to dinner. His favorite restaurant was Chipotle, Ogle said, so they went there often.
It’s why Hubbard invited one of his little sibs to stay the night at his house while his parents fought; why Hubbard invited him to family outings and to church; why Hubbard returned from a football game last fall and, instead of going out and having fun with his friends, stayed in to make sure his little sib was doing OK.
It’s why Bonham took his second little sib to Wal-Mart for parts to fix his bike. He sat in their front yard one afternoon and helped him get the job done, despite the boy’s father pulling into the driveway and telling Bonham, “You shouldn’t be spending that much money on this kid.”
Ogle, Hubbard and Bonham were heavily involved during their time at MVHS. They not only played sports (all three were multi-sport athletes), but they were also in Key Club and National Honor Society together. As their head football coach, Mike Kerr, put it: “They have a true heart for service.”
But no other club or activity had the impact Big Sibs had. As much as they changed the lives of their little sibs, the same could be said in reverse.
“They’ve given more to us than we’ve given to them,” Hubbard said.
Ogle’s little sibs taught him about toughness, about overcoming adversity and defeating the odds. Hubbard and Bonham shared similar thoughts.
“My main takeaway throughout my life is definitely going to be gratitude, just being thankful for everything I have. Because being over at the middle school and interacting with these kids, you realize that, even if you think your life is pretty rough, it’s not. Everything can always be worse,” Ogle said. “But at the same time, you have the power to make it better. So that’s what I’ll take away from it.”
The community has learned from the Big Sibs experience as well. Middle school teachers have lauded the high schoolers for their dedication to the program. When Keaton and the trio told personal stories about the program’s impact to the Mount Vernon Board of Education in February, several administrators teared up.
“Well done,” superintendent Bill Seder told the boys afterwards, as the room fell silent.
“Yep,” board member Cheryl Feasel responded. “Kleenexes.”
This year, Hubbard is headed to North Central State College to pursue a career as a physical therapist. Ogle is off to Ohio University, where he plans to enter the school’s pre-med track. Bonham will attend Macalester College in Minneapolis, where he’ll continue his football career while studying either political science or international development.
Despite the distance, all three still plan on staying in touch with their little sibs. They consider their little sibs some of their best friends.
“I don’t think I’ll ever leave them. I’m always going to stay connected with them,” Hubbard said. “I’ve had my one little sib for two-and-a-half years now, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here because I feel like he’s definitely made a lot of progress.”
As for the future of Mount Vernon’s program, the trio made sure it’s in good hands. In the weeks leading up to graduation last spring, they worked to recruit new big sibs for the coming school year. There will be significantly more girls involved this year, they said. There will also be students who are not athletes.
“I think they take a lot of pride in being the leaders, you know, and they’ve labored over how it goes forward,” Keaton said.
“They are very intent and mindful of, ‘This does not die when we walk out of here,’” Sanders added.
It’s not that Hubbard, Ogle and Bonham made the program – they were joined by a small army of eager big sibs, just like themselves – but their vision changed the program's culture forever. Their leadership will impact the lives of Mount Vernon high schoolers and middle schoolers for years to come.
They might not look at it that way, Sanders said, but it’s true.
“The great thing is, it’s not about them. This is all about other people,” said Sanders, entering his 14th year as a Mount Vernon Middle School guidance counselor. “To me, it’s kind of a legacy for them, whether they realize that or not.”
It all started just a year-and-a-half ago, on the smooth, black couch in the corner of Keaton’s classroom. As she sat there on a warm morning in May, Keaton looked up at the wall behind her.
There, a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. had been painted in black and gold letters:
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
“That’s it,” Keaton said, tears welling in her eyes. “That’s a lot about what their heart is.”