Kent Wagner says it's hard for him to actually sit down and talk about his relationship with Chris Spann without sounding too cliche. What started as a rocky friendship grew into an unconditional bond that transcends what either of them could have expected.
"I think I was nine years old, and I wanted a positive male role model in my life," Spann recalls. "At the time, it was just me, my mom, and my sister. My mom turned to this program and asked me if I wanted to try it out. I was hesitant at first, but I gave it a shot."
Spann signed up as a little brother for Big Brothers Big Sisters more than 20 years ago.
Big Brothers Big Sisters, founded in 1904, pairs volunteer "big brothers" and "big sisters" with younger kids in need of a positive role model and friend. According to the group, today's youth face a variety of challenges, and having someone there to guide them along those risky paths can help them to reach their potential.
Around the time Spann signed up, Wagner, then 29, had recently moved to Charleston and opened Millenium Music, a landmark music store downtown at the corner of King and Calhoun. Business was booming, and he was enjoying the ride when he decided to sign up as a big brother.
"The stars were aligned for me to give something back, so I decided to give the program a try," he explains. "I tend to be slow at starting things, but just as slow at quitting, so once I start something, it becomes a lifelong thing."
Things didn't click immediately between the two of them when they first met in 1995. Spann says he tested Wagner a lot, staying distant from his new "big brother." But Wagner remained patient, and let the young Spann express himself however he needed.
"Eventually I stopped," Spann says. "I always thought he wouldn't be there for long, but he was showing me that he was there for the long haul — that he wanted to get to know me and build a real friendship."
Wagner believes that Spann puts it best when he says it's really a matter of just showing up. Spann says that what kids really need is just somebody who will be patient and listen to them.
After a few years of showing up, Wagner asked Spann to be the best man at his wedding. The teenager didn't really know what a best man was supposed to do at the time, but he knew that he didn't want to mess it up.
"I had never been a part of something so big and so important for someone else," Spann says. "I felt like it was a pretty big deal and like he really cared about me. I really cared about him too, and I made sure everything was going to go all right with him. I trusted him a lot more, and he trusted me a lot more."
After the wedding, things got a bit busier for both. With Spann, then a teenager, going through high school and college, and Wagner starting a family, it became harder for them to get together.
"We both grew up," Wagner remembers. "I got married and had kids. He went through his middle years, his teenage years, and I guess we didn't see each other for a while. We lived separate lives, but the bond never felt any weaker."
Recently, the two have reconnected. Wagner is now the godfather of Spann's young daughter. And, now that Spann is in his early 30s, the relationship is less one-sided, they say. Both have noticed a bit of a role reversal, with Spann returning some advice that Wagner gave him years ago.
Merridith Crowe, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lowcountry, says the group is always in need of more volunteers, especially for big brothers. According to Crowe, it takes six times as many asks to get men to say yes, whereas women tend to readily volunteer their time. She says she has never met anyone who regretted signing up because the relationships have an impact for both involved.
"One thing our big brothers say is that they are pretty sure they have made a difference in the life of their little brother," Crowe explains. "But, they are positive their little brother made a difference in theirs."
Wagner, who now works closely with Crowe to get volunteers for the program, says that there's a waiting list for big sisters, but a waiting list for little brothers, highlighting the need for volunteers. In his case, though, he has never had trouble advocating for the work.
"It's an easy sell because I believe in it," Wagner says. "I've lived it, and I know how rewarding it is. When I talk about it with the people I meet, it's coming from the heart, and that enthusiasm is translated pretty easily because it's real."
With Be a Mentor, Alex Moor, the group's executive director, mentors a local sixth grader.
"Mentoring provides adults the opportunity to really reflect on what's important to them in their lives — their core values," Moor says. "It builds a stronger sense of what that means to you. It brings me so much joy to be able to see my mentee grow through her successes."
Whether they know it, the numbers give a sense for how much of an impact mentors can have on a young person.
"Students with mentors are 55 percent more likely to graduate," Moor explains. "One hundred percent of mentees graduated last year. Students with mentors are also more likely to hold leadership positions, which prepares them for life after graduation."
Getting involved in either Big Brothers Big Sisters or Be a Mentor begins with an online application. While Big Brothers Big Sisters processes applicants to be mentors and mentees themselves, Be a Mentor partners with local schools, and after a screening process, helps to match the volunteer with a mentee in need of a mentor.
"What's really cool about mentorship is that everybody has unique qualities they bring to the table to impact the lives of their mentee," Moor says. "Everybody has unique skills that can be used for good when it comes to providing kids with someone in their life to look up to."