THE premise is simple — boys need men as mentors in their lives.
Sometimes, it’s simply about having someone to toss the football with or talk about sports. Other times, it’s about having someone to ask the bigger life questions about love, relationships, and what it means to grow up male in a world that is constantly changing.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg has a long waiting list of boys in need of a mentor, and that is why they are challenging all men in Winnipeg to step up this November.
Jeff Penner and Matt Chrunyk, volunteer spokesmen for the organization’s 30 Men in 30 Days Challenge, are a true testament to the very real impact of male mentorship. Their friendship, which began at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg, has spanned nearly two decades.
Nineteen years ago, Penner, then 24, decided he wanted to volunteer for the organization as a mentor. He had recently got married, and, after returning from serving in the military out east, missed the male camaraderie.
"I needed somebody to play sports with, throw the football around and talk, probably just as much as Matt did," says Penner.
He saw an ad at a Jets game — and he never realized how life-changing the experience would be.
For Chrunyk, he grew up in a middle-class family, his mother a teacher. At the age of eight, his parents separated, and by the age of 11,his relationship with his father faded. "I really took it hard when my parents split, mostly because it felt like my dad just kind of walked out on us," he says.
Chrunyk’s mother decided to sign up her then-13-year-old son as a ‘mentee’ with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg, which, Chrunyk admits, he wasn’t too keen about at first.
Penner says the minute he read the young boy’s profile, he knew it would be a perfect match.
"I thought, ‘Wow! This is a little mini-me!’ " laughs Penner.
Their first outing together was a game of tennis. They were to spend an hour a week with each other, but after a few weeks they broke all the rules, sometimes spending three, four, five hours a week together, going to Jets games (tickets often provided by Big Brothers), watching sports games on TV, and poring over the sports statistics together in the newspaper.
The two of them would also go out for burgers and discuss the larger questions of life.
And as the two grew older, the friendship evolved. "I remember, Matt, when he was 13 he was excited to call me his big brother," Penner says. "Then when he reached his teens, he would call me his friend because it wasn’t cool, and then when he was in his 20s, we just both started calling each other brothers, and to this day, I call him my brother."
They quickly became part of each other’s families, attending family gatherings together. Over the past 19 years, they have helped each other move into new apartments and condos. Penner was Chrunyk’s best man at his wedding, and Chrunyk is now close with Penner’s 15-year-old son.
"We kind of know this about each other without saying it, but I would hope that he knows that a large part of the man I am today came from him," says Chrunyk. "My mom was great, but of course, if you’re a young man, you are going to learn a lot about what it means to be a decent person growing up from somebody who has all the attributes themselves."
This year, they decided they wanted to give back to the organization that first brought them together. After learning Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg has a waiting list of 100 children looking for mentors — 80 per cent of which are young boys — they decided to start volunteering by telling groups of men around the city about their story.
"It breaks my heart that there’s some kid waiting for one or two years and all he wants to do is throw the football around and talk about life," says Penner. "There’s gotta be more guys like us that can step up and make a difference."
In the month of November, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg is challenging men to "Be a big deal" by becoming a mentor to a child. Aptly coined the 30 Men in 30 Days Challenge, they are sharing inspiring stories such as Penner’s and Chrunyk’s in order to inspire Winnipeg men to step up.
"We want to get the message out that if you have a spouse, a buddy, a co-worker that you think would be an amazing mentor to a young boy, encourage them to get involved," says Greg Unger, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg. "Sure, you’re gonna change a kid’s life by being a mentor, but what Jeff can attest to is that a kid is going to change your life, too."
To learn more about the 30 Men 30 Day Challenge and how you can get involved, please visit the Big Brothers Big Sisters website at: http://www. bigwinnipeg.com .
If you know a special volunteer who strives to make his or her community a better place to live, please contact Carolyn Shimmin at firstname.lastname@example.org .