HAMMOND — Rick Vogl and Abiyah Smith are a match made not in heaven, but by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago -- and they couldn't be happier.
Meeting from 5:30 to 7 p.m. biweekly at Frank O'Bannon Elementary School, the duo are just one of 17 pairs of adults and youths who participate in on-site activities and occasional field trips with site-based program coordinator Martha Fedorowicz.
Vogl, a human resources manager, said Smith, 12, "keeps me youthful, thinking fresh, learning new things. He is such a neat kid."
Smith likes best that Vogl "is funny, he can always make me laugh, even if I'm in a bad mood, and he gives me good encouragement."
A seventh-grader who lives with his mother, Smith said he joined BBBS two years ago "because I didn't have a male figure to talk to, and I kind of wanted one."
"I like doing things together," said Smith, who mentioned a recent egg-drop activity as memorable.
Vogl recalled an enlightening activity that asked the kids to create posters incorporating five things the community needed.
"The bullying concept came up in every poster, so it became a bigger project, and we actually created a mural in the school to get the (anti-bullying) message out," he said.
Field trips, some on weekends, have included Challenger Learning Center, Olympia Bowling Lanes, the Hammond YMCA and U.S. Cellular Field for an agency-wide holiday party that drew 700.
Vogl joined BBBS after organizing a recruiting presentation for his former employer, Jupiter Aluminum in Hammond.
"I coordinated the presentation to give our employees a chance to make a connection, and I signed up," he said. "It is such a rewarding program, a wonderful thing, and it feels good."
Fedorowicz couldn't agree more.
“Mentoring is a rewarding experience that makes a lasting impact on a child’s life," she said.
"By meeting with a child on a regular basis and participating in fun and engaging activities focused on growth and development, a mentor can provide the support needed to make sure that every child is on the path to success.”
While the Hammond site is close to capacity, BBBS' Paul Lewis, a manager of site-based programs, is hoping to expand the program into Gary, East Chicago and other Northwest Indiana communities.
"I grew up in Griffith and am well aware of the need," Lewis said.
It enrolls students in third to eighth grades.
Youngsters are enrolled by parents or guardians, often at a parent night presentation where they can fill out applications. Families must provide transportation for their child.
"Students can stay in the program until 18," said Fedorowicz, who not only develops and guides BBBS activities, but also provides "match support" in the form of one-on-one meetings both with mentors and youths.
"I value their dedication, and the way they take real-life experiences and incorporate them," said Brandy Boyd, Abiyah's mother, of the BBBS staff and mentors.
She added that BBBS has helped build her son's social skills.
"He's more comfortable and confident."