Keilen Young had trouble in school. Now, he’s in a gifted program. One likely reason: Seyi Oshinowo, a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. The organization, which creates bonds that can last into adulthood, is part of The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

Share story

As a kid, LaToya Kendrix always wanted to participate in Big Brothers Big Sisters. Some of her classmates had a Big Sister, and they always seemed to be doing cool things. “I can talk to my Big Sister about anything,” she’d hear.

She never got one, but when she had kids, she signed them up with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, which matches adult mentors with children 6 and older. Her daughter got a Big Sister in a matter of months. But her son Keilen Young spent four years on a waiting list.

The organization, one of 12 that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, doesn’t get enough male volunteers. Because it tries to match mentors with kids of the same sex, most of the 610 kids on the waiting list are boys, according to spokeswoman Heather Jones.

For Keilen, whose match arrived on his 10th birthday, it was worth the wait. One year later, the boy who was having trouble in school, resulting in almost daily phone calls to his mother, is in a program for gifted students.

“He seems a lot happier and excited about things,” Kendrix said. She attributes the change to Seyi Oshinowo, a 27-year-old business-operations specialist at Boeing. As Keilen’s Big Brother, Oshinowo has taken the Federal Way fifth-grader to movies, sports and special events organized by Big Brothers Big Sisters. One, at Microsoft, offered demonstrations of “secret” virtual-reality video games under development.

“It was so funny,” Kendrix recalled of her son’s return home. He had signed a nondisclosure agreement to view the games and so refused to talk about what he had seen.

She didn’t mind. As a single mom working for a bridal store, she explained, “I don’t have the funds to do extracurricular stuff.” Family vacations are not on the table.

Many of the 1,000 families helped by the organization are in the same boat. “Our kids typically come from lower-income families,” Jones said. Most have single moms, often eager to find a role model for their sons.


Growing up together

Big Brothers Big Sisters has a few school-based programs, including “MentorU,” starting this year at West Seattle High School. Mentors there will help guide students academically, including with choices about college.

Most matches follow a more free-flowing structure. The organization asks that “Bigs” meet with their “Littles” at least four hours a month. What they do is up to them.

“Let’s jump in a pile of leaves!” video-game art director Mark Barrett would have said in his first years of mentoring Kenny Nguyen.

Starting the program when he was 8, Nguyen was so excited that he would call Barrett early every Saturday morning to find out their weekend plans. His mom, a Vietnamese immigrant, worked six days a week at a nail salon and came home as late as 8 p.m., exhausted, Nguyen said.

Barrett, then in his early 20s, was in school at Redmond’s DigiPen Institute of Technology. He stayed up late studying. Tired of thinking only about himself and remembering an influential mentor in his own life, he wanted to make time for Nguyen.

Even so, the 6:30 a.m. calls (as Barrett remembered, though Nguyen put them at 9 a.m.) were too early. “Kenny, this is the first rule,” he said. “You cannot call me before 10 a.m.”

In a way, they grew up together over the 10-year span of their official match, which ended when Nguyen turned 18 last year, although they still keep in close touch. Nguyen graduated from high school and went off to Washington State University. Barrett, now 34, graduated from DigiPen and launched a career.

Each learned big lessons from the other. There was the time the pair arrived late to a Big Brothers Big Sisters event at Wild Waves, the water park in Federal Way. The person who was supposed to give them tickets had left by the time they got there, and Barrett, still a struggling student, couldn’t afford to buy the tickets himself.

Nguyen took it “like a champ,” Barrett recalled. But the boy couldn’t hide his sadness at he looked in from the gate, watching everybody else having fun.

“It made me a more responsible adult,” Barrett said. The next year, he brought Nguyen back to the park.

“What was your favorite ride?” the Big Brother asked afterward.

“Everything!” answered the Little.

Nguyen said Barrett is the person who taught him right from wrong. Once Nguyen spent the night at Barrett’s house and, uncharacteristically, walked away with some video games.

“I can leave here one of two ways,” Barrett said when he confronted Nguyen at the boy’s home. “One, I trust you. Two, I don’t.” Crying, Nguyen gave the games back.

Nguyen broke down again in May for a different reason. Barrett was getting married in the Bahamas and flew Nguyen there to be a groomsman. “When he read his vows, I couldn’t control it,” Nguyen said. “I started crying.”


Opening up

Sometimes, whole families become close through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Bernhard Klee takes his sons, 3 and 7, to watch his Little Brother, 16-year-old Asa Taylor, play high-school basketball and football. Asa’s older sister recently joined her brother for pizza and the movies with the Klees.

And Klee has had the siblings and their mom, Julia Taylor, over to his Kirkland house for a barbecue.

Klee, who is from Austria, was not exactly the Big Brother Taylor was expecting. “I just assumed he would look a little more like us,” said Julia Taylor, who is African American.

But she said after the first day of the match, three years ago, nobody thought about that. The two connected so well, especially in their love for food and interest in sports.

Like all relationships, mentoring matches take time to deepen. Oshinowo recalled a breakthrough with Keilen, when the 11-year-old talked about his feelings for his dad, who had been in and out of his life. “Before, our conversations had been pretty surface-level,” Oshinowo said.

On different occasions, Oshinowo told his Little Brother about growing up the child of Nigerian immigrants. “They stressed education, education, education,” Oshinowo said.

He’s not sure whether it’s any pointed talk that turned Keilen around academically. Rather, Oshinowo said, “I think it’s more of the fact that he has somebody in his corner.”

Just having fun also seems a big part of the equation. “I’m happy to get out of the house because all I do is go on my tablet,” Keilen said.

He was talking at the Tukwila Family Fun Center, where Oshinowo brought Keilen on a recent Saturday. At Keilen’s request, they headed to the Go Karts, which zipped around an outside track.

It was not really a race, but Keilen made it into one. “I beat you!” he said after steering his Go Kart back to its starting position a minute earlier than Oshinowo did his.

“No way,” Oshinowo protested.

“Yes, I did,” Keilen said, literally jumping with joy.

It couldn’t get much better than that, but they gave the arcade games a whirl. They rolled balls into holes and shot them through hoops. They accumulated a wad of prize tickets and turned them in for candy.

They didn’t talk much that afternoon. They didn’t have to. In a week or two, they’d get together again.