Jean Rhodes’ award-winning book Older and Wiser: New Ideas for Youth Mentoring in the 21st Century, now out in paperback, surveys the state of youth mentoring and offers effective paths forward for the field today. In the following excerpt, Rhodes recounts the touching story behind the foundation of the first American youth mentoring program, Big Brothers Big Sisters.
On the morning of July 4, 1903, a random act of kindness by a twenty-two-year-old whiskey salesman launched the first American youth mentoring movement. “It was the Fourth of July,” recalled Irv Westheimer decades later, “and I was down at my office between Third and Fourth on Walnut in Cincinnati.” Young Irv was pacing his office, absentmindedly looking out a back window facing an alley, when he noticed a boy reach into a container of garbage, pull out a piece of bread, and then break off a piece to give to his dog, which, Irv recalled, “was an erstwhile white dog, and it seemed to me this wasn’t exactly an ideal way for a young man to be eating.” Irv closed his rolltop desk, put on his hat, and walked out of his building toward the alley. “The boy was trembling with fear that I was going to beat him or do him some harm because that’s all he knew.” Irv talked quietly and gently to the boy: “Don’t be frightened, I’m your friend. My name’s Irv, what’s your name?” “Tom,” the boy responded. Hoping to put the boy at ease, Irv asked Tom the name of his dog. “That really had an effect on him, that I was interested enough to ask what his dog’s name was, and he thought, well, after all, maybe I wasn’t too bad. So I walked over to him gradually so as not to frighten him too much and I said, ‘I’m going to have something to eat, and why don’t you come along?’ He didn’t answer me, but I put my arm around his shoulders and we went over to Foucar’s [Café]. In this days, you could get a glass of beer for a nickel, and you could get a big glass of bear for a dime, and a free corned beef sandwich.”
Along with Tom’s dog, Gyp, the pair walked along the Erie Canal, past churches, community halls, and streets of Cincinnati. To Tom, entering Foucar’s must have been like stepping into an enchanted forest. Irv removed his hat and waved to the men seated at the grand marble and mahogany bar as he and Tom made their way to the dining room. The polished black oak walls were lined with mounted elk heads and shelves of beer steins, and a large stone fireplace framed the far end of the dining room. At a long, communal table, Tom and Irv shared the first of many lunches. As Irv recalls, Tom was no ordinary boy. He was smart and curious with a spark of joy that seemed to transcend his bleak circumstances. By the time their sandwiches arrived, Tom was talking cheerily to a delighted Westheimer about his dog and family. Charmed, Irv asked if he could walk Tom home to “see what his conditions were.”
Irv knew that many families were living in crowded tenements mere blocks from his office, but nothing prepared him for what he saw. “I found out he was one of five children, with a single mother. His father was unknown — whether he was divorced, dead, gone or what, they didn’t seem to know — the mother holding a miserable job, trying to keep her flock alive, didn’t have time to look for another job even.”
The image of Tom and his family, hungry and living in a crowded tenement, haunted Irv. He spent the next few days calling business associates and lining up a better-paying job for Tom’s mother, as well as a job for Tom’s oldest sister. Still, something about young Tom kept drawing him back, and Irv began stopping by before work to take him to the Cincinnati Jewish Center to help him meet new people and broaden his worldview. Within days, Tom had made friends with the sons and daughters of many of Cincinnati’s successful businessmen. He won over the center staff and, as Irv recalled, “immediately the other workers at the Jewish Center saw a metamorphosis” in Tom. “He was gaining confidence and thinking about his future.”
Hooked on the simple idea of providing opportunities and friendship to children in desperate need, Irv began proselytizing about the idea to the Jewish Center staff and other members of the business community. “It wasn’t hard to find Little Brothers, in those days we didn’t have any kind of unemployment insurance,” he remembered. Within one week, twenty-five pairs had been made, “and that,” concluded Irv, “was the birth of the Big Brothers movement.” Of course, Irv was not content to let the matter rest there. On his many business trips to other cities, he asked his local contacts to assemble groups of young businessmen whom he could address. He would then extol the virtues of being a Big Brother and, he recalled, the men were “so delighted that we’d give them some concrete, specific direction where they could help. I had no trouble starting Big Brother movements, like Johnny Appleseed, wherever I went. Incidentally, it was the boys themselves who coined the phrase ‘Big Brother and Little Brother.’ They started saying, ‘Here comes my big brother.’ That’s exactly what happened, and that’s the way it got the name Big Brother movement.” By 1910 the Big Brothers of Cincinnati was formally established.