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An ‘honor’able Valentine’s Day

They made valentines out of paper and glitter and played Connect Four. These kinds of activities are not typical on college campuses, but that’s just what happened Saturday when the Honors College invited volunteers from Big Brothers Big Sisters to spend an afternoon with some of Tampa Bay’s kids.

The event was held in the Honors College Student Lounge. There were about 60 attendees including students, Bay area volunteers and elementary school-age children. There were tables set up with games in one room and tables set up for crafts in the other.

The “bigs,” big brothers and big sisters, are volunteers who vary their spare time with the kids they call their “littles.” Together they work on homework, play sports, go shopping and do other things that their “little” is interested in. Those invited to Saturday’s event were Tampa Bay locals, including business executives, USF alumni, singles and couples.

The craft room was the busiest place, with completed valentines lined up against the wall to dry. Big sister Jeannette Brown and her little sister Sharika created one after another. Twelve-year-old Sharika is a fifth grader at West Tampa Elementary School. She and Jeanette met about two years ago.

“I don’t have any kids or brothers or sisters in Florida, so I’m not exposed to anyone other than those in my own age group, who aren’t that fun,” Brown said. “I pick up Sharika and we read together, and over these two years her reading has significantly improved.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters was founded in 1904 and is the oldest and largest youth organization in the United States.

According to the Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Web site, in 2004 the organization served more than 225,000 children from ages 5 to 18 through a network of 470 agencies in 5,000 communities across the country.

“I don’t know whether make a difference is a good word, but it gives (kids) a chance to interact with college students,” Honors College Adviser Sharon Geiger said. “That (interaction) might be something that would lead them to try a little harder in school and maybe get to college themselves.”

Geiger hosted and planned the event because she is interested in making sure the students of the Honors College participate in the community.

“These (volunteers) are trying so hard to help these kids to get a better grip on the real world, it just seemed like kind of good match,” she said.

The event was intended to provide the “bigs” with something they could bring their “littles” to.

They spend a lot of time together, and finding something to do each time can get tough.

“As we talked about (what we could do), it became obvious that college kids could positively impact these kids,” Geiger said. “For many of them, a college campus is something they never get to see; college students they never get to have interaction with. We decided that this is something we’d like to do.”

Judy Kane, director of development at the Honors College, also helped plan the event. Kane worked at Big Brothers Big Sisters for 15 years, but left and came to work at the Honors College four years ago.

“This might be something to inspire them. I think it’s good for the students, and it’s a life-changing experience for a lot of these kids,” she said.

Kane still volunteers as a big sister and brought her little brother with her to USF that day. He said USF was like a city that’s all about education and was his kind of place.

“The bigs are volunteers from all walks of life,” Kane said. “Some are professionals with very fancy jobs, and some are unemployed.”

Depending on the success of Saturday, Geiger and Kane would like to plan more events in the future. They are not sure what types of events these will be, but they want to bring in members of the community to each one.