National Service: Big Brother is watching out for you

Some 200 volunteers spend their time mentoring children of single-parent families - but there are about 250 children on the waiting list.

brotherly love 88  (photo credit: )
brotherly love 88
(photo credit: )
Name Daniel Brandriss Age 27 Organization Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Israel Hours a week Between 2 and 6 Family status Single Residence Jerusalem Profession Trainee lawyer Most meaningful moment When he heard that the teacher had asked Wallalo to explain the great improvement in his behavior and studies and was told that he answered, 'I have a Big Brother.' Daniel Brandriss is a Big Brother - but not the kind that has connotations of totalitarian regimes and ghastly reality programs. He is an active member of the local branch of a 100-year-old international organization - Big Brothers, Big Sisters - which exists to provide mentoring for children of single-parent families. "With my Little Brother I'm a friend, a mentor and a father figure," he says. When he talks about his work with a 17-year-old Ethiopian immigrant called Wallalo, his eyes shine with enthusiasm and, clearly, the admiration is mutual. "If all people were like you, the messiah would come," Wallalo once said to him. Becoming a part of the organization, which has about 160 volunteers, and 200 children on the waiting lists of its Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Gush Etzion branches, was a gradual process for Brandriss, who was born here to American immigrants. "Libby Reichman, who started the program here, is a very close friend of my family and almost like a second mother to me," explains Brandriss. "In the beginning I would go along to the house in Old Malha [in Jerusalem], where rent is paid by a well-wisher, and just play with the kids. It's a great place and anyone can come there, it's open every day until seven. Then I'd sometimes go on day trips that Libby and Suzy Holzer, the volunteer co-coordinator, organized." He admits that it took a while for him to actually become a Big Brother to a child. "It sounds frightening at the beginning - it's a big commitment and the relationship you establish may last a lifetime." The gradual process by which he joined the organization began when he accompanied a group on a day trip and was assigned to take care of a girl of nine who was there with a brother of six. "The father was in jail for drugs; the mother neglected them and couldn't function. The kids were wonderful and the boy, who was hyperactive, was having a great time, while the sister watched him like a mother. At the end when the refreshments came out, she told him he must eat something. He didn't want to stop playing, but she told him he must eat, even if he wasn't hungry because there was nothing to eat at home. "That really touched me and I decided it wasn't enough to play a marginal part. I spoke to Libby and joined as a Big Brother." He had an easy start, replacing a Big Brother of a Russian boy who had gone away for an extended trip. "Shimon was a great kid, very happy, and I realized that the demon of taking responsibility wasn't so bad," he says. AT THIS point I felt I must ask Brandriss about the dangers inherent in letting an older person into the life of a child - with all the implications. "Yes, pedophilia is one of the things that Libby is most afraid of, but fortunately they have a very good system of investigating the backgrounds and credentials of volunteers in order to be able to match them with children, so it's never happened." After his initial temporary assignment, he chose Wallalo from the pool of children on the waiting list - all kinds of kids from diverse backgrounds. Wallalo had walked here from Ethiopia with his mother when he was six. "They suffered many traumas on the way and as a result his mother doesn't speak; she whispers in the ear sometimes. He basically raised himself with a younger sister," Brandriss tells me. On their first meeting, Wallalo told him that he wanted to get out of the bad environment he was in. He had a group of friends who had robbed a gas station and he told Brandriss he was a good kid and didn't want to be involved in criminal behavior. "I liked his self-awareness," says Brandriss. "The main thing we do is work toward his goals, and one of these is to be a combat soldier in the army. He knows that with a criminal background that would not be possible." Today Wallalo is 17 and Brandriss counts him as a friend as well as a Little Brother. "We go bowling together; when he has a birthday, I take him out for a treat and buy him a present; and I helped him get his driving license, studying for the theory test with him." Brandriss also helped Wallalo find a part-time job in an electronics store so he could earn enough to pay for the lessons. He encountered a dilemma when Wallalo asked him for a loan of his car."I dream of going to school in a car," he begged. Brandriss knew it would not be safe to let Wallalo drive the car alone right after getting his license. He asked Reichman what to do. "Libby and Suzy are trained social workers and they know the right approach in situations like these. I told Wallalo that he needed more experience and he accepted it. Now I'm trying to get him to stop smoking, and they are advising me on that too." Sometimes, admits Brandriss, he doesn't always feel like being a Big Brother to Wallalo and he compares the situation to having to go to the gym and not having the energy to exercise. "But by the end of each time I meet him, I think I'm at least as happy as he is. It's satisfying and fun, and I feel energized just like after a workout. I'm really glad I became a Big Brother and I invite anyone to come along to the house, where they will be greeted by big smiles and a warm easy-going atmosphere."n Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Israel - Jerusalem (02) 561-2131; Tel Aviv (03) 744-8744; Gush Etzion (02) 993-4767 If you know of anyone who volunteers in a worthy cause, please contact me at