A Bigs Deal
Wanted: Someone who likes to play, 18 to 82. No experience necessary, but must love kids. Flexible hours. No pay. Lifelong benefits.
You won’t see such a job posting online or in the classified section of the newspaper, but it aptly sums up Operation Bigs, founded by Big Brothers, Big Sisters of San Diego County in 2004 to pair caring volunteers with children who have a military parent deployed. Kids like Sergio Smith, a nine-year-old with soft brown eyes, a toothy grin, and a mouth full of bubblegum.
On this piping hot summer day, Smith is sitting on a picnic bench with his “Big,” Sergeant Jose Miranda, a 26-year-old Camp Pendleton Marine. All around them, other “Bigs” and “Littles” are playing ball, boating, and fishing at Lake O’Neill. It’s a reunion for mentors and the Marine families they are helping.
Smith readily admits he has struggled since his father, Sergeant Major Calvin Smith, was deployed to Okinawa for two years. “My dad would always play with me, and when he’s not around, I feel lonely and I start to cry because I miss him a lot,” he says. His mother, Ana, says Smith was having emotional problems at home and at school until an understanding teacher at Santa Margarita Elementary on base referred him to Operation Bigs.
The program teamed Smith with Miranda, who had the time to devote to a child and the need for something more in his own life. “Sometimes things lose their meaning,” he reflects. “Now that I have Sergio, I have someone I look forward to seeing, and someone to inspire in life. It actually inspires me.”
For the past eight months, they have met weekly at school to share lunch, play tag ball, make airplanes, hang out. “What Operation Bigs does is put the fun back in their week,” says program director Amy Benson. “They can be that kid again and not, literally, have the weight of the world on their shoulders.”
The children of military families face unique challenges: frequent moves, separation from extended family members, parents in combat. They often play “good little soldiers,” bottling up fear and anxiety to protect their parents. “A lot of them don’t talk about how they feel at home because they don’t want to burden their moms even more,” says program manager Bonnie Campbell. “They see she’s already upset and worried. So they have nowhere really to let go, or be themselves, or talk about their concerns.”
Ana says Miranda has made a big impression on Smith, helping him deal with his emotions and open up. “I don’t see him crying anymore the way he used to. He actually talks to me about his feelings, if he’s feeling sad or if he’s having a bad day, or if someone made him mad.” His school performance has also improved. Earlier this year, he was honored as “Student of the Month.”
Operation Bigs is now in all five schools connected with Camp Pendleton. Thanks to funding from the Jack in the Box Foundation and Madeleine and T. Boone Pickens, the program will expand this fall to Coronado and Point Loma. (The organization honors the Pickenses as Persons of the Year at its 47th Annual Gourmet Dinner on October 22 at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine.)
More mentors, who are rigorously screened before being accepted into the program, are needed. The program looks for “someone with a heart for children, someone who likes to play.” Someone like Miranda, who calls his relationship with Smith “a life altering experience.” Someone with a “Bigs” heart. (858/536-4900, www.sdbigs.org) ANDREA NAVERSEN