Andre Burns receives a visit at his school from Big Brother Jerry Leftwich early on in the mentoring program. Photo provided
By Deb Haas
When 16-year old Andre Burns realized that, with some extra work, he could graduate early from high school, he put all his focus into doing everything that needed done. He succeeded and is graduating from Riverview East Academy.
Andre, who lives in Avondale, says, “I feel great about it. It’s a jump start in life to do the things I want to do.” The next step is to figure out what those things are. He’s only 16, so he has time.
In addition to his mother and older brothers, Andre has someone else in his corner, someone who has been in his life since the fourth grade. Jerry Leftwich is Andre’s Big Brother — his mentor — paired through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati (BBBSGC).
Andre and Jerry were featured in The Cincinnati Herald back then. They were part of the site-based program at BBBSGC, meeting one day a week after school. But there were lots of other kids around, and Andre wanted one-on-one time with Jerry, so they transferred to the agency’s Community-Based Mentoring program, where they could get together, just the two of them, with more flexibility.
They liked going to the Cincinnati Museum Center, go-cart racing, just doing errands or going to the mall. But, Jerry tells us, “Every time we were together I would ask him, ‘How’s school?’ ‘How are your grades?’ ‘Are you having trouble in any of your classes, and what can we work on?’ I told him he needed to work first and play second.” He even went to parent/teacher conferences to be sure Andre was getting, and making the most of, the best education.
Andre says,” Ever since we met, he kept me focused on school. Before him I would procrastinate, I wasn’t as motivated, and I wouldn’t have been graduating early. He told me to be on top of everything to be successful, and not just at school. He showed me life skills as well. We talked about ways to get a job, not be as withdrawn, work with people.”
That’s exactly what Andre’s mom, Iyanta, had in mind when she called Big Brothers Big Sisters, hoping to have him matched with a Big Brother. She said, “He needed to build up his confidence to be successful in society. Andre is very smart, he was the valedictorian when he graduated sixth grade at Rockdale Elementary. But he has to be challenged or he gets bored. Jerry taught him to never settle for less than his best.”
For Andre, Jerry and Iyanta, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program has impacted their lives in profound ways — they expect to always be part of each other’s lives.
“Jerry’s family, he’s stuck with us,” say Andre and Iyanta.” Jerry, who believes God puts people in your life for a reason, says, “I am going to keep pressing him. He is family now. I hope to see him become a productive person in our society, see him get married, have kids one day.”
Iyanta has thee children, and they all have had Big Brothers in their lives. She says the relationships have been vital. “They had role models in their lives that a lot of kids don’t have,” she said. “Having a positive male influence is beautiful. There’s so much bad going on in the neighborhood, they needed a male figure in their lives to be positive and guide them in the right way.”
Jerry Leftwich is a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, which considers community service part of being a successful adult. He says he is just paying it forward.
“I had coaches and neighbors and other mentors watching after me growing up, and I learned a lot about doing the right thing from them,” he explains, “You owe it to your community to give back. At the risk of sounding hokey, these kids are our future leaders. They are going to be making the decisions. I am planting seeds right now.” He also says, “I understand the importance of an African American child having an African American role model to look up to, someone who can help them see that an education and hard work can lead to a successful life.”
With a degree in organizational management and a master’s in education from Xavier, Leftwich knows what he is talking about.
And Andre has always been listening.
“He’s been there to give me a push, he’s been a mentor, a motivator,” Andre says, “I hope I made him proud. I think I did.”
There are many more kids who need a Big Brother or Big Sister right now. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati services children in 13 counties within Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Southeastern Indiana. To apply to volunteer, go to www.bigsforkids.org or call 513 421-4120.