A 'Big' program brings high school mentors and local youngsters together

By Ed Martin, The Leader Editor
Local officials and Big Brothers Big Sisters got together recently to promote a fundraiser. L to R: Karen Brar, Debbie Muro, Amy Coelher, Amanda Phelps, Jessica Barragan, Rodney Brumit, Cheryl Hunt, Diane Phakonekahm and Ray Madrigal.
Local officials and Big Brothers Big Sisters got together recently to promote a fundraiser. L to R: Karen Brar, Debbie Muro, Amy Coelher, Amanda Phelps, Jessica Barragan, Rodney Brumit, Cheryl Hunt, Diane Phakonekahm and Ray Madrigal.
Photo Contributed, Lemoore Police Department

Jose “Buster” Bustillos is a “Big” man to J’Shawn Webster – in more ways that one. In this case, the word Big refers to his mentorship role as a Big Brother to the 10-year-old J’Shawn, a fifth-grader at Meadow Lane Elementary School.

It’s all part of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Program, the largest youth mentoring organization in the United States, and locally, its mentoring programs are picking up steam, particularly in Kings County where plans are currently underway to implement a Big program between Lemoore High School and the Lemoore Elementary School District.

Central Valley Big Brothers, Big Sisters

A select group of 20 high school kids will spend one day a week mentoring local elementary students beginning February 23. Both districts are currently identifying students in need of a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Jose Bustillos and J'Shawn Webster have been together for nearly three years.
Jose Bustillos and J'Shawn Webster have been together for nearly three years.

According to the Big Brothers and Big Sisters, a “Big” is a mentor who spends time with a young person, giving him guidance and helping that youngster navigate the intricacies of school, life, and friendship.

Such is the case with Bustillos and J’Shawn. But in this case, the 43-year-old Bustillos is an adult volunteer, a Navy Chief who spends time mentoring J’Shawn.

Bustillos has been a Big to J’Shawn “Juice” Webster for the last three years, starting when the youngster was just seven years old. Bustillos has spent numerous days and hours with the young man, providing him the mentorship many young people lack in today’s world.

J’Shawn’s sister Tania is also in the program, and her Big Sister, Briana Daniels, is also in the Navy. Tania attends Liberty Middle School, and on their outings Tania and Briana enjoy sushi lunches, frozen yogurt, shopping and getting pedicures.

Bustillos currently serves with the United States Navy at NAS Lemoore. The Navy Chief currently provides guidance and parts for the Navy’s numerous jet fighters. He’s been at NAS Lemoore for the past 18 years. He has two children, Darian, 17, a student at Lemoore High School, and Adrian, 20, an LHS graduate.

“I knew about the Bigs program a while back in Houston,” said Bustillos. “I wanted to do it then but I just didn’t have the time. Now, I’m going on my fourth kid. I meet with him as much as I can. Just recently, we went up to the Sierra Mountains to see the snow. We try to do as much as we can.”

This past weekend he took J’Shawn to the movies on the base.

Just like any other teacher, administrator and volunteer who works with school-age children, Bustillos underwent a background check which included fingerprints and a TB test.

“I enjoy the program,” said Bustillos. “I think the kids really benefit from it. There are so many kids that can benefit from a program like this.”

A 'Big' program brings high school mentors and local youngsters together

J’Shawn’s mother, April Bookman, 35, has been impressed with the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, and is particularly pleased with the effect that Daniels and Bustillos have had on her children. “I enjoy the program,” said Bookman, a Lemoore High School graduate. “I think the kids really benefit from the Big Brother, Big Sisters program. There are so many kids out there who can also benefit from this program. I like the program because it’s giving my kids an adult influence outside of your parents and family. The kids get that extra adult attention.”

She said that before her children entered the program, they were having difficulty in school. Now, after several years, both students are doing well in school. “They both have really good grades now,” she said.

She has an affinity for the Navy because she was a Navy brat, and she thinks highly of Bustillos and his relationship with her son. “Jose comes to many of his games to see him. They go sometimes to movies and bowling.”

“He (J’Shawn) loves him,” said Bookman. She said the usual contract with Big Brothers is for a year, but J’Shawn wanted to stay with Bustillos. “It’s like he’s a part of the family now.”

While J’Shawn and his sister are part of a community-based “Bigs” program, a pair of local districts are gearing up for a high school Bigs program utilizing local Lemoore High School students as mentors to first through fifth grade elementary students in the Lemoore Elementary School District.

The program is operated by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California.

According to the elementary district’s superintendent, Cheryl Hunt, the program will begin with a total of 20 students who will be selected from over 100 kids currently enrolled in the district’s after-school program.

“We’re currently in that process of referring,” said Hunt. “We’re reviewing the kids right now.” Some of the selection criteria include whether the student is a recipient of the government’s “Free and Reduced Lunch Program” or if he or she is part of a single-parent family. A student may struggle in school work or have school attendance issues to be considered as well.

“They (kids) may have challenges where a mentorship program might provide some help,” said Hunt. “We are going to reach out to the families.” The goal she said is to improve social skills, attendance issues, and academic skills.

The high school is currently taking applications and interviewing high school kids as mentors. Each of the elementary students will have his or her own “Big.”

The program is expected to officially begin on Feb. 23 at Lemoore Elementary. The students will meet their older mentor the following week. They will meet once a week, on Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.


At the high school level, Superintendent Debbie Muro is excited about the program. “Big Brothers, Big Sisters will be doing classroom presentations on February 6 to present the program to 9th, 10th and some 11th grade students,” she said.

Big Brothers, Big Sisters will select 20 Bigs from LHS and 20 Littles from Lemoore Elementary to participate.  Once selected, the students will meet at Lemoore Elementary on Thursdays.

Muro said that finding the $20,000 per year in funding for the program wasn’t easy, but thanks to many local sources, including an $8,000 grant that Lemoore Police Chief Darrell Smith helped obtain, the money was raised. Other funds included a donation from Dr. Amy Coeler’s Smiles for Life program, a Bowl for Kids’ Sake Tournament last spring, and a Central California Big Brothers, Big Sisters fundraiser. The Kings Lions Club also chipped in with a large donation as did Muni Temps, an accounting firm that worked for the City of Lemoore.

“It’s an important program because we have a lot of youth who could benefit from having a mentor to help guide them,” said Muro.  “We have been trying to get this into our community for a year or so.  I’m thrilled that it’s finally going to happen.”

Diane Phakonekahm, the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Central Valley Central Valley executive director, has spent a lot of time in Lemoore helping pave the way for the local Bigs program. The Lemoore Bigs is one of 18 high school efforts in the Central Valley impacting approximately 700 kids. The Community Big Brothers, Big Sisters program – matching adults with young people – is currently serving about 300 local youngsters in the Central Valley.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is funding,” said Phakonekahm. “Money, unfortunately, is always an obstacle.”

Another obvious challenge is finding the mentors needed to accommodate a large waiting list of kids waiting for a mentor. “We need adults to step up and help a child’s life. We have 200 or more kids currently on a waiting list. These kids are ready to be matched up,” lamented Phakonekahm.

“The program is so impactful,” she said. In addition to providing a young person with a mentor, the Bigs keep careful track of a student’s progress. “We take a hard look at report cards, checking on their emotional and social behavior, their attendance, and reading levels.”

The Central Valley Big Brothers, Big Sisters are preparing an entire new chapter in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program entitled Bigs in Blue, a program to match local law enforcement officers and officials with young people. 

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