Helping Hands

Members Mentor to Help Children

Posted June 7, 2005 at 5:43pm

Two million children in the United States have a parent in prison. Without positive adult intervention, Big Brothers Big Sisters estimates that 70 percent of those children are, at some point, likely to be incarcerated themselves. But Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) have dedicated themselves to changing that statistic.

Each of them has found a “little brother” through BBBS, and they are teaming up to spread the word.

[IMGCAP(1)]For Ensign, it began in 1997, when the Nevada Republican, who was still in the House at the time, was matched with Donzale Butler, a 9-year-old whose father was in prison and whose mother was trying to get off welfare.

The group matched him with then-Rep. Ensign, one of the fathers of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

For the past eight and a half years, Butler has spent most Sundays at Ensign’s Las Vegas home with the Senator, his wife and their three kids who, in the words of Ensign, “just adore” their adopted brother.

Ensign says he and Butler talk about everything from school to sports to girls to responsibility. When Ensign talks with Butler about his dad, who was released from prison three years ago, Ensign tells him that “it’s important that he love his dad” but that “just because his dad made mistakes doesn’t mean he has to.”

Ensign, who was a veterinarian before entering politics, has helped Butler land a couple of jobs, including work in a vet’s office, to help him foster a strong work ethic.

“Somewhere, somebody has to break the chain. Because if he doesn’t break it, he can pass it on to his kids,” Ensign said. “As a society, you are just building in the future prisoners if you don’t get involved.”

Ensign, Schiff and Kelly Perdew, the winner of NBC’s “The Apprentice: Season Two,” will come together Wednesday to announce an initiative to help BBBS raise the money and manpower needed to reach 1 million children, a four-fold increase from present enrollment numbers.

The 11 a.m. gathering on the Cannon House Office Building terrace comes nearly two decades after Schiff first got involved.

As a 26-year-old clerking for a federal judge in 1986, he walked into the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles on the advice of a former law school classmate.

Schiff, who was handed three applications, was immediately struck by what he read in the form prepared by David McMillan and his mother. McMillan had made three wishes: the first was for a big brother, the second was for a puppy and the third was for a beautiful world.

Schiff remembers being amazed how a 5-year-old was mindful enough about the world around him that he would want something as abstract as “a beautiful world.”

“I would have gone for the skateboard or the bicycle,” Schiff said.

And so Schiff and McMillan formed a strong bond, going to the beach, watching movies, dining and playing in the park. McMillan was even a groomsman in Schiff’s wedding.

“I became a part of his family and he became part of mine,” Schiff said.

McMillan would go on to earn an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a graduate degree from the University of Southern California’s film school.

When McMillan, who is one of 10 young writers in the Warner Bros. Television Writing Workshop, wrote the March 22 episode of the CBS drama “Judging Amy,” the two got together to watch the show at his mother’s apartment.

“It can’t be overestimated” how important “just being around someone” can be, said McMillan. “He was there for me when my dad was not.”

There has also been a political dimension to the relationships.

McMillan, who calls Schiff “one of the good guys” in politics, has walked precincts, appeared in direct-mail pieces and narrated a biographical commercial for his “big brother.”

When Ensign tried to unseat Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 1998, Rhonda Butler appeared in an Ensign ad, thanking him for being a Big Brother to her son.

As for Perdew, he got involved in the late 1990s, when he was matched with Zack, who was 11 or 12 at the time.

He was inspired to get involved because of his experience growing up with divorced parents. Perdew, who switched off living with his mom and dad, said, “It always felt weird to have one of them missing.”

BBBS has grown exponentially since its inception. But Judy Vredenburgh, the organization’s president and CEO, thinks there has been more continuity than change in the first 100 years.

“What’s amazing is that we’ve absolutely stayed focused on matching one child in need with one volunteer. That’s what we know works,” Vredenburgh said. “The one thing that is really different is that we now have the technology … so that we can take our social service to scale.”

While BBBS has always served children of incarcerated parents, the organization redoubled its focus on that demographic in 2001, when it partnered in the creation of Amachi Big Brothers Big Sisters, a program that matches church congregants with children of prisoners.

Today, 121 BBBS offices nationwide have dedicated programs to serve children of prisoners.

Vredenburgh estimates that between 20 percent and 25 percent of Big Brother kids have a parent in jail. Prior to the start of the initiative, the total was “probably half that number.”

“The number one problem in America today is a lack of fathers in the home,” Ensign said. “You can’t fix that overnight. But you can at least help that problem by becoming a mentor.”