CRYSTAL LAKE – Adam Varrassi and Hunter Johnson are searching for Devil’s Pit.
The two have been here before, deep in the back of Veteran Acres Park in Crystal Lake. Hunter, 10, leads the way, twisting and turning his way through hills and tall grass. Adam, 29, lets Hunter navigate even after several wrong turns.
Adam and Hunter met through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of McHenry County. The two were matched up in July 2012 and have grown a bond stronger than either would have expected.
“We’re kind of bromigos, right?” Adam says to a grinning Hunter as the two take a break from hiking. “We just like hanging out. We like the same things. He’s big into baseball. I played baseball my whole life. Not to mention he’s super cool, and I’m always trying to be as cool as him. It’s just a friendship and it’s kind of just growing organically.”
But lately at Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County, that type of relationship has been in short supply. Currently there are 21 boys and three girls who have yet to be matched up with a Big Brother or Big Sister, and the program hasn’t had a new volunteer through its doors since June.
“Currently we have zero male volunteers on our waiting list,” said Dena Hernandez, director of programs at Big Brothers Big Sisters McHenry. “We have none, which is not normal.”
This year the program has matched 316 boys and girls with Bigs, compared with 540 children in 2012, Hernandez said.
While it’s not unusual for the program to have a lag in volunteers – especially during the summer – Hernandez said this has been the highest numbers of children on the waiting list in “recent memory.”
“Our greatest need, and this seems to be our challenge, is finding male mentors,” Hernandez said. “Someone they could just look up to. Be a friend. Someone they could hang out with. Toss a football. It’s very simple.”
Hernandez said that men are typically hesitant to join because they think they don’t have the time or are uneasy about filling the role of a child’s father. While the program does require an 18-month commitment, Big and Littles are required to meet just two to four times a month. And Bigs are not replacing a parent, but rather giving the child a friend, Hernandez said.
“Men get a little nervous because they think it’s more than what it really is,” she said. “[The Big and Little] can do various activities. Basically whatever the Big is looking to do. We offer a case manager to help support the match who calls them monthly to ask how things are going.”
Climbing up a short but steep incline, Hunter is certain he knows the way to Devil’s Pit this time. At the top of the hill Hunter points it out; it’s roughly 50 yards away and at the bottom of another hill. Adam agrees and the two slide down the other side of the incline and trek toward the spot.
They come to a large pile of tree stumps that block their path to Devil’s Pit. Hunter starts climbing over the stumps. They wobble with each step he takes, and Hunter nearly slips off the pile.
“I’m gonna make an executive decision,” Adam says. “We can’t go over this. We need to go around.”
It’s the first time Adam has rerouted the adventurers, and the two peel off and attempt Devil’s Pit from another direction.
“Adam does a really good job of being a friend but also giving [Hunter] constructive feedback, which we really like,” said Kelley Rice, Adam and Hunter’s case manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters. “They’re really fun to watch interact. You know it’s not just lip service when I call and check in with them. To see them interact, it really is a big brother/little brother kind of thing.”
Adam and Hunter usually meet once a week, though that’s not the norm, Rice said. But she is hoping that more men will volunteer their time and begin to develop a bond like Adam and Hunter have.
“[Adam’s] not a parent. He’s a friend,” Rice said. “That’s one thing we want to stress. It’s someone to be a friend. Men get misled because they say, ‘I don’t want to be his dad.’ You’re not his dad. You’re his friend.”
Adam said he got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters after the program ran a 30 Bigs in 30 Days campaign in 2012, which is something Hernandez said they may do again. He and Hunter have become so close that Adam plans to continue their friendship even past the 18-month commitment.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him get out of elementary school and go to junior high,” Adam said. “I remember making that transition, and I’m looking forward to seeing that happen and being there for him when the going gets tough.”
An hour and a half into the hike, Hunter leads to two down another path toward Devil’s Pit. Adam follows confidently behind.