Bigs and Littles unite at West Point for holiday celebration
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
It wasn’t quite Thanksgiving yet, but it felt like a real homecoming when a large group of Big Brothers and Big Sisters gathered with their "Littles" Nov. 18 at West Point.
Cadets from the West Point Big Brothers Big Sisters Club celebrated the holiday at the Lee Child Development Center with an afternoon of activities—ranging from thoughtful and creative, energetic and hilarious, to culinary and tasty.
The group made good use of the facility’s gymnasium, playing with the inflatables, trying out the basketball nets, hula hoops and jump ropes and other recreational activities.
Red-faced and slightly perspired, the kids cleaned up and began making the holiday meal. Valentine Pooley, a longtime volunteer and self-employed caterer, has prepared the Thanksgiving meal herself in the past. This year, it turned into a collaborative effort with cadets and children getting into the kitchen to add ingredients for the turkey stuffing and making batches of batter for cupcakes.
They also designed holiday cards with drawings and personal messages for deployed servicemembers. The cards will be delivered through the American Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes program, which teaches children the value of expressing gratitude during the holiday season.
Although the “Bigs” spend time each week with their “Littles” at the Highland Falls Intermediate School, it’s these monthly, much larger organizational gatherings that help foster the spirit of togetherness between the cadets and the children from the Highland Falls area.
“That’s really our goal with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, to really cultivate that one-on-one mentor-mentee relationship and it has worked out beautifully,” said Gretchen Faunce, mentoring manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County.
Faunce, an Army spouse whose husband currently serves at West Point as a company tactical officer, joined the BBBS of Orange County last year. She said the cadet club has been active since the late ‘70s with the Orange County organization, but in the past two years the focus has been with the children of Highland Falls and Fort Montgomery area. Even with such proximity to a military installation, Faunce said most of the children have limited connection with the military, although the goal is to reach those children who have a parent deployed.
“Some of them have never even been to West Point before this. It’s a nice bridge between the West Point and the Highland Falls communities,” Faunce said.
She said the interview and screening process which matches up “Bigs” and “Littles” is quite lengthy—months, even—so not every cadet who wishing to join the club program has completed it yet. Still, participation has grown, Faunce said, with cadets making that all-important decision to commit a good deal of their time with the program.
Class of 2015 Cadet Josh Norris serves as a club cadet-in-charge with Class of 2014 Cadet Jessica Wagner. Norris said cadet life can become quite insular and focused at times, so community service is a good way to connect again with “the outside world.”
“It was important for me to give back and get involved,” Norris said.
Norris began the process as a freshman and was matched up pretty quickly, he said, with his “Little,” who just turned 10 this summer.
“During the school year, I’ve helped him out with his homework, or we’ll go outside and play and just talk about life,” Norris, a systems engineering major, said. “My ‘Little’ is kind of like me.”
One of the newest members of the club is Class of 2014 Cadet Calla Glavin who was recently matched with her new pal Grace this semester.
“She’s just like me,” Grace said about her Big Sister.
They’ve been able to bond quickly through a lot of interesting activities—like attending an Army Women’s Soccer game to enjoying a West Point Band concert at Trophy Point.
One thing they both agreed not to do together was homework.
“We play in the gym a lot. Sometimes we’ll read magazines, but mostly play games and talk a lot,” Glavin said.
Glavin, a member of the Army Women’s Lacrosse team, looks forward to showing Grace her skills on the field once the season starts up next semester. “Oh, she’s definitely invited to a game or two,” Glavin said. “She can sit on the bench with us.”
Class of 2015 Cadet Aaron Kilner first joined Big Brothers & Big Sisters while attending the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School when it was formerly located in Fort Monmouth, N.J.
“It was just a matter of wanting to help and so you then look for places where you can,” Kilner said. “The best option I found was with Big Brothers & Big Sisters.”
Kilner has three younger brothers at home and said that experience helps, but he also shares a common interest in sports with his “Little.”
Class of 2014 Cadet Katie Doody is the oldest of four siblings and sometimes experiences homesickness when she sees kids out and about.
“Being a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters has been like getting a little sister back again,” Doody said.
Doody has been with “Little Sister” Samantha for nearly two years, and they remember that initial awkwardness upon first meeting each other.
“We didn’t know what to expect from each other at first, but then we slowly learned what we both have in common and what we like to do,” Doody said.
They said some of their favorite shared experiences have been listening to music and shopping, but mostly they enjoy simply hanging out—which Samantha demonstrated by trying to wrap an arm around the much-taller cadet’s shoulder.
“She beats me all the time on my iPhone games, so I’ll download games for her and she’ll beat my high scores right away,” Doody said.
Doody, also a member of the Women’s Lacrosse team, said she gets added support from Samantha during games.
“She’s really good,” Samantha said. “Last year they were really good, but I think they’ll be even better this year because I believe in them.”
Class of 2015 Cadet Josh Norris, a cadet-in-charge of the West Point Big Brothers Big Sisters Club, helps Oliver, his “Little,” think of a design and message for a holiday card. The cadet mentors paired with their mentees Nov. 18 during the Thanksgiving celebration event inside the Lee Child Development Center and wrote personal messages for deployed servicemembers. The cards will be delivered through the American Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes program, which teaches children the value of expressing gratitude during the holiday season. Val Pooley (left) and her sister instructed children on how to cook a Thanksgiving meal at the Lee Child Development Center Nov. 18 during a West Point Big Brothers Big Sisters Club event.
The cadets and their Littles made good use of the facility’s gymnasium, playing with the inflatables, trying out the basketball nets, hula hoops and jump ropes and other recreational activities. Red-faced and slightly perspired, the kids cleaned up and began making the holiday meal.
Cadets Ellen Duckwall and Call Glavin provide assistance while the Littles make a batch of cupcakes for their Thanksgiving celebration Nov. 17 at the Lee Child Development Center.
BBBS Photo Gallery on Flickr
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County
Directorate of Cadet Activities
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County on Facebook