The first time Jeff Engle took his Little Brother, Lee, on a match outing, things did not go as planned. “We went fishing and we didn’t catch anything,” says Engle. “Most of our time was spent untangling fishing lines.” Lee, didn’t mind. Then, on the way back from the lake, they happened upon a local fire department that was doing a demonstration with a helicopter. “So we stopped and did that,” says Engle.
Over the past six years Engle, now Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington’s CEO, and Lee have done many things. Typically, they get together twice a month and spend time hiking and doing community service projects. “He’s at the age where he loves to eat,” says Engle. “There’s not a Subway we go by that I don’t have to do some negotiating.”
In that time, he’s seen Lee grow both physically and personally. “He was this small kid and now he’s about 6’2,” Engle laughs. “He used to be very shy but now he’s totally expressive and comfortable talking with adults.”
As Lee has grown older, Engle has begun introducing him to different fields with career potential. “We went to Fleet Week during Seafair in Seattle and recently Port of Olympia Commissioner Bill McGregor took us out on a logging ship and talked about opportunities for longshoremen,” he says. The pair also visited JBLM, and explored different options in aviation at Alaska Airlines.
“It’s huge for a young man like him,” says Engle. “He only knows his little world in and around his hometown. I’m trying to open him up to a much broader spectrum of what’s out there. I press him on his schoolwork so that he has choices when he gets out. That’s one of the most important things we do as mentors – keep kids on a good life path and open up a world of opportunities.”
Engle first got involved with BBBS in 2012 when he and wife became empty nesters and he found himself with extra time on his hands. “I found their website and contacted them, and they got back to me and said they had a young man who’d been waiting two years for a match,” he explains.
Part of the reason for the Lee’s long wait to be matched was distance. Lee lives with his grandparents a substantial drive from Olympia, but Engle didn’t mind. “The first meeting was kind of like a job interview,” he says. “We met at the library and his grandmother was there along with one of the match support specialists. We talked for about twenty minutes and then they met with us individually. We both agreed that it was a good match.”
He draws on his experience as a Big Brother in his new role as CEO. “First, I wanted to work in something I was really passionate about, and seeing what it’s doing for Lee made me want to give back on a bigger scale,” he says. “What helps me the most is working with the program team. I understand what a Big goes through and what a Little goes through. It’s fun to work with people who are passionate about what they do.”
The transition to the non-profit world has been eye-opening for someone who worked in for-profit industries most of his life. “As a CEO, I’m challenged every day to balance keeping the fuel in the tank through raising money and the excitement of the program,” says Engle. “I’m really enjoying it and it’s absolutely the right move for me at this point in my life.”
He has clearly gained as much from Lee as Lee has gained from him. “It’s the little things,” he says. “One day we were driving somewhere and he said, ‘Is it okay if we turn the radio off and just talk?’ You know you’ve got that relationship of trust when he wants to talk about something in his life that’s important.”
On another occasion, Lee’s 13 and 15-year-old half-brothers were visiting and Engle took them all on a bike ride. During a break at – you guessed it – Subway, one of them commented, “Do you realize that we’re the first generation in our family that’s not on drugs?”
“That made me realize that the rewards come in little increments,” Engle says. “These kids have enough awareness to see what that’s done to their family and to their lives. That’s when you know you’re making a difference. My goal with Lee is to help him stay on the right path. Big Brothers Big Sisters is key in that goal.”
To learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters visit www.swwabigs.org or call 360-943-0409.