“Bernhard has become like part of our family,” said Julia Taylor of her son Asa’s volunteer mentor for four years. “He just loves this country and he wants Asa to take advantage of things here.”
At a glance, Julia Taylor wondered if Bernhard Klee, the Big Brother assigned to mentor her son, was going to be a good fit.
“He’s very different from us,” said Taylor, who is African American, of Klee, an immigrant from Austria with an accent that he jokes sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.
Four years later, Klee, 39, and Asa Taylor, 17, are still pals, going to dinners, movies, sporting events and more. “Bernhard has become like part of our family,” Asa’s mother said.
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Klee’s children go to Asa’s Issaquah High basketball games to cheer for the strapping forward. “It’s cool to see them,” Asa said. “They’re really young and really impressionable and get into sports.”
Who has gotten more out of the Big Brother-Little Brother relationship?
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“I’m more rounded,” Asa said, after new adventures — such as skiing and visiting Microsoft’s Xbox division — with Klee.
“I feel now more like a friend than a mentor,” Klee said. “I’m kind of reconnecting with my teenage years.”
Both Klee and Taylor say they’ve been enriched by the other’s experiences. It “allows us to see similarities and differences we can learn from,” she said.
The organization is the local branch of a national nonprofit that matches adult volunteers with children ages 6 to 18 who need caring, one-on-one mentoring. Established in 1957, it served 1,028 children last year across King and Pierce counties.
The population that Big Brothers Big Sisters serves is diverse. Roughly 26 percent of Puget Sound Littles are black, 22 percent white, 20 percent multiracial, 17 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, 2 percent Native American and 8 percent other.
Though only 45 percent of Littles are male, more than 70 percent of children on a waiting list for mentors are boys because less than a third of the volunteers are men.
Your dollars at work
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound matches adult volunteers with children who can benefit from caring, one-on-one relationships.
Examples of what the nonprofit can do with your donation:
$25: Allows one hour of recruiting to find mentors for more than 750 kids waiting for a mentor
$50: Pays for the background check/screening of a potential mentor
$100: Provides a month of coaching and training for a student, parent and mentor
For information: www.bbbsps.org
The local agency is always in need of more Big Brothers, said Kelly Gehringer, a spokeswoman for the Puget Sound chapter. “The reason behind the wait time is our thorough matching process,” Gehringer said. This includes background checks and compatibility factors like location, gender and interests.
Taylor said she almost had forgotten about Big Brothers when Klee showed up a few years after she first contacted the agency.
Asa has an older brother and sister, but his father is not involved in his life, said Taylor, who works with students with behavioral issues in a local school district.
“He gets enough mom-voice,” said Taylor of her disciplinarian tendencies. It’s good to have an adult with Klee’s outlook helping to guide her son.
“He just loves this country and he wants Asa to take advantage of things here,” she said. “He’s got a great business mind and always encourages Asa about college and grades. He makes Asa feel real important to him.”
Their bond is strengthened by Klee’s religious faith. “Both Bernhard and our family are strong believers in the Lord,” she said.
Klee and Asa have gone paddleboarding and skiing (they’ve included Asa’s sister, Promise, now a student-athlete at the University of Mississippi) and toured CenturyLink stadium and Microsoft’s Xbox division.
“He’s opened Asa’s eyes to some things,” his mother said. Skiing “is just not something we would’ve been able to do because I don’t have the expertise and it’s a little bit expensive.”
Klee, who worked for T-Mobile and is now starting his own business, offers Asa advice on money management and asks him for advice on using social media.
“Asa is so easy to deal with. We can talk about religion and politics,” Klee said. And they can talk about basketball and football, Asa said.
But food appears to be their chief bond, according to Taylor. “They both like to eat and do it really well.” Tacos, pizza and popcorn are among their favorites, Klee said.
Klee said he taught German to teenage immigrants in Austria. “I really enjoyed that experience a lot. It broadened my horizons. At first it made me more thankful for what I have. I also learned about different cultures.”
After coming to the U.S. in 2011, he said he wanted to give back. He looked at different charities and concluded Big Brothers Big Sisters was the best option for relationship building.
“For me the most rewarding thing has been to win Asa’s trust and his family’s trust,” he said. “I get really touching messages from his mom. I feel like I’m having an impact. And I feel I connect much deeper with American culture.”
Taylor said it was uplifting to see Klee’s family celebrate becoming U.S. citizens. “I hope we can bring an even deeper sense of belonging for him and for his kids,” she said.