Nearly a decade ago, a little boy met a volunteer mentor for what was to be a one-year commitment through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, one of 12 agencies aided by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. But the two wouldn't let go, and the bond has changed their lives.

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Bryce Hammond could be the poster child for the benefits of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The 17-year-old from West Seattle likes bowling and going to football games. He addresses adults with “sir” and “ma’am.” He hopes to attend a military college next year.

Zach Hokett is one of the main reasons Bryce says he’s been able to “stay normal,” endure setbacks and set goals for his future. Hokett is his “Big Brother,” the Boeing analyst Bryce met at 9 years old, when his mother enrolled him in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, thinking he could use another adult in his life to offer guidance and encouragement.

There have been moments in their eight years together when the mentorship might have looked like a failure. Like the time Bryce, hooked on drugs, was found unconscious in an alley, wearing shoes on the wrong feet. Or when he ended up in the emergency room, overdosed on the drugs he used to try to cope with his father’s death.

“I went down the wrong path,” Bryce said. “The doctors said I wouldn’t make it past 25 if I kept up what I was doing.”

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Those were the times Bryce needed Hokett most, and Hokett knew he was most needed. When Bryce was on the street doing drugs, Hokett drove around to look for him, then take him out to dinner. When he was a patient at Seattle Children’s, Hokett came with a deck of cards.

A one-year commitment has turned into a nearly decade-long relationship. Bryce says it has meant “the difference between life and death.”

“I never wanted to quit,” said Hokett, 31, who lives in Green Lake. “Without him, I wouldn’t feel as complete of a person.”

This “Little” and “Big” are among thousands of pairs matched each year by Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Puget Sound, one of 12 nonprofits helped by reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

“Investing in Big Brothers Big Sisters is investing not just in helping us today, but building a better, strong future tomorrow,” said CEO and President Louis Garcia.

Zach Hokett, left, and Bryce Hammond were matched as “Big” and “Little” nearly a decade ago. “I never wanted to quit,” says Hokett. “Without him, I wouldn’t feel as complete of a person.” (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Zach Hokett, left, and Bryce Hammond were matched as “Big” and “Little” nearly a decade ago. “I never wanted to quit,” says Hokett. “Without him, I wouldn’t feel as complete of a person.” (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Bryce Hammond, shown in 2012 at age 11, bowls with his “Big Brother” Zach Hokett at Roxbury Lanes in West Seattle.  (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times archives)
Bryce Hammond, shown in 2012 at age 11, bowls with his “Big Brother” Zach Hokett at Roxbury Lanes in West Seattle. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times archives)

“We’ve been part of the community for over 60 years, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t attuned to the tough things kids face each day. Those evolve, and we have evolved with it.”

The organization matches about 1,200 kids in King and Pierce counties each year with one-to-one volunteer mentors. Another 800 kids are on the waiting list. Most on the wait list are boys, which mirrors the national trend, Garcia said.

The main hurdle is staffing and resources; there aren’t enough volunteers, and there aren’t enough employees to facilitate and support a match for each child. Nearly all of the organization’s expenses are for salaries and administrative costs like volunteer screenings and trainings, according to its 2017 financial report.

“The irony is that as word spreads of the great relationships, the wait list just gets bigger,” Garcia said.

Bryce’s mother, Kelly Hammond, said she realized early on that her three sons would greatly benefit from a male role model in their lives. Their father struggled with addiction, she said, and often couldn’t focus on anything but his own needs.

She first enrolled Bryce’s older brother Tyler in the program, and eventually his younger brother Jacob as well. They all had great experiences.

“As a mother I knew the best thing for my kids would be to not try to be their ‘everything,’ because I felt like having a positive male influence for my boys would be very important for them,” Kelly Hammond said. “Someone who would be reliable, someone they could talk to, someone for them to just hang out and have fun with, without having to share that special person with their brothers.”

Neither Hokett nor Bryce knew what to expect, but they developed a friendship each quickly predicted would last for years.

Bryce has grown from the small boy Hokett accidentally bounced off a trampoline the first time they met. (“That was funny,” Bryce recalls as the two laugh.) Hokett got married — Bryce was a part of the wedding — and being a mentor led him to be sure that he wants to be a father.

Life hasn’t been easy for Bryce Hammond, front,  especially since his dad died. Zach Hokett’s support “showed him that no matter what he did or what trouble he got into, people still loved and cared for him,” says Kelly Hammond, Bryce’s mom. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Life hasn’t been easy for Bryce Hammond, front, especially since his dad died. Zach Hokett’s support “showed him that no matter what he did or what trouble he got into, people still loved and cared for him,” says Kelly Hammond, Bryce’s mom. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

The toughest times started when Bryce’s dad died in 2014, he said. He had his mother and brothers for support, but Zach was an additional person he knew wouldn’t leave.

That demonstration of commitment benefited Bryce in many ways, his mom said.

As Bryce went down a dark and dangerous path, Zach stuck with him, Kelly Hammond said. “It showed him that no matter what he did or what trouble he got into, people still loved and cared for him.”

Hokett is quick to remind Bryce that those rough years have been just a small portion of their time together. He lists off Bryce’s successes faster than Bryce can. For example, the teenager was accepted to the Washington Youth Academy, a military-style school for at-risk youth, where he excelled and earned college recommendations from his toughest drill sergeant.

Hokett was Bryce’s mentor there, helping him through the rigorous curriculum so he could graduate on time. Hokett came to see him when he placed second in the “Ranger Challenge,” a day-long obstacle course competition in marksmanship, land navigation and physical fitness.

Their time has also been filled, too, with Seahawks games, museum visits and countless times throwing a Frisbee back and forth in Bryce’s front yard.

Big Brothers Big Sisters provides tickets to many events, like the Seahawks games, which makes it easy for the mentor to find things for them to do and gives the child experiences his family might not otherwise have the resources or time for.

Garcia said the primary responsibility of the organization is to create a foundation for a healthy relationship that can thrive for years. Staff members screen potential mentors, kids and their families before the make a match, then provide ongoing coaching and regular check-ins.

“Our staff is equipped to be a referral for everything,” he said. “It’s not just ‘hey, do mentoring,’ but ‘What are their challenges in life? How are they doing in school? We help rally around the relationship, to make it as strong as possible.”

Bryce is taking online courses and is on track to graduate this spring. He hopes to go to West Point or another military college next year with a goal of eventually becoming an Army Ranger — because it takes physical and mental strength, he says.

Will the two stay in touch if Bryce moves? They both nod.

“I’ll come visit,” Hokett says. Their friendship is going to last.

“With (BBBS), they make it so easy to be successful, and you can make a big difference in one person’s life,” he said. “It’s really special.”