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Originally published November 28, 2012 at 8:15 PM | Page modified November 29, 2012 at 10:36 AM

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Big Brothers Big Sisters makes a difference for kids and adults alike

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound provides 1,350 kids in Pierce and King counties with one-on-one mentoring. Boeing analyst Zach Hokett and his 11-year-old "little brother" Bryce Hammond figure their relationship will last decades.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About the series

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Articles in The Times will tell how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can make.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound

Examples of where your money might go:

$20: Could help pay for background checks of a mentor to help protect a child's safety

$50: Could help pay for a handful of educational games

$100: Could help pay for a monthly check-in meeting with teachers, parents, mentor or child

More information: www.bbbsps.org/NetCommunity/

Source: Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Puget Sound

When they teamed up two years ago, it would have been hard to predict Zach Hokett and Bryce Hammond would become close.

They met in then-9-year-old Bryce's living room, each seated awkwardly on a separate couch. Bryce's mother wanted a role model for her son. Zach Hokett, a Boeing business analyst, wanted to give back and figure out how serious he was about having kids. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound matched them up, but neither knew what to expect.

Then they stepped out onto Bryce's trampoline and Hokett accidentally bounced the lighter Bryce off. "I felt really bad about that," a sheepish Hokett, 25, says now.

But there's no telling what a fourth-grade boy will find amusing.

"That was pretty funny," Bryce, now 11, recalls, saying that icebreaker was the moment he knew he'd like Zach. "I could tell he liked being outside, like I do. I figured he was OK."

For more than two years since, Hokett and Bryce have been a dynamic duo. The "Big" and "Little" hand out programs at Safeco Field or crack jokes at Seahawks games or the bowling alley. They trade lines from movies or go on hikes or to Alki. Often they're just yakking and having fun, two guys trying to find their way in the world.

"I can't believe how much cooler Bryce is than anything I had imagined," Hokett said recently, as the two took turns knocking down pins at Roxbury Lanes in West Seattle. "I can't imagine him not being a part of my life."

"Me, too," said Bryce, a frenetic, freckled redhead with a zest for sports and video games. "I didn't know what it would be like at first, but Zach's the best."

Their relationship is precisely what Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Puget Sound seeks to arrange.

Established locally in 1957, the organization — one of 12 agencies benefiting from The Seattle Times Fund for the Needy — serves 1,350 kids, mostly from Pierce and King counties, solely through one-on-one mentoring.

"What's different about us from other mentoring organizations is the professional support," says Pamela Shields, communications director for Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Puget Sound. "We may be the most researched youth-mentoring program in the country."

"We track every child that comes through our doors. They take surveys when they come in and again annually. We focus on social and emotional health, peer relationships, self-confidence, educational outcomes."

Matchmaking

Like other BBBS programs around the nation, the Puget Sound organization seeks adults willing to commit for at least a year to being paired with a child who desperately needs a role model. The organization screens kids and adults thoroughly, doing background checks and reference checks on mentors, looking to create a match that appeals to both sides.

"Our interviews are pretty intense, and we do a fairly lengthy orientation," Shields says. "We're looking mostly at geography and common interests, but we're also looking for a 'Big' who has the interest and the time and a stable situation."

"We've had people come in who would make a great Big but they've just gotten a new job or they're out of town all the time, so it's not really the best thing."

Some kids, like Bryce, are the children of divorce who suddenly found themselves isolated with a busy single parent. Some have a parent who died. At least one-quarter of the kids have an incarcerated parent. Some have been abused or neglected.

"Our kids run the gamut of tough situations," Shields says. That's why "we offer additional training and resources throughout, in case a Big is experiencing something they can't address themselves."

In a climate where nonprofit funding is often earmarked for organizations that meet basic needs — food, shelter, clothing — it's been tough to keep money coming in, says Shields.

"People sometimes look at us as a 'Wouldn't-it-be-great-if' organization," she says. "But it's so much more important than that. It's not just that you're throwing a football and making cupcakes, but the fact that you are showing up regularly for those kids means so much more than that."

Shields says research shows that when kids in poverty or teetering on the edge of trouble have a mentor who shows up all the time and is just there, their chances for success improve.

"Maybe they're first in their family to go to college, or not be in jail," she says. "There's so much that changes for a child just from that one intervention. It can be difficult for us when people don't see that."

Lasting pairs

On average, relationships last just under three years.

But many last for decades or never end. Bryce and Zach figure that's the case for them.

Hokett, who is unmarried, has a younger biological brother several years his junior. So he grew up mentoring and taking care of a younger kid.

The ultra-articulate Bryce, street-wise for his age, has a father he loves, who is in and out of the picture.

"My mom does what she can, but she can't do it all. Plus, she's my mom," Bryce says with a women-don't-get-me kind of look. With Zach, he has a "neutral third party" with whom he can share the ups and downs of preteen life.

"I'm not afraid to talk to him about things that happen," Bryce says. If it weren't for Zach, "I'd be bottling more up, keeping more things inside."

Instead, Bryce, a Boy Scout, says he enjoys school more than he did a few years earlier, though he still finds homework to be a drag. He still likes video games quite a bit, but doesn't hole up with them for hours with quite the same zeal.

Both Hokett and Bryce tell their friends about each other. And Hokett says he even shares his own personal and professional frustrations with Bryce — "we've been able to talk about tough subjects in both of our lives." Hokett also says he's now certain he eventually wants kids of his own.

"I tell everybody I know about Bryce," says Hokett. "He's just such an amazing kid."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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