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Festival of Trees: Harbinger of the holiday season benefits youth mentoring program

November 4, 2012
By BETSY BETHEL Associate Life Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

When Patrick was 6, his father committed suicide. His mother abused drugs, and he often had to sneak food from school or wherever he could find it.

His mother's boyfriend physically abused him. He eventually was removed from his mother's custody, and she was sent to prison on a drug-related conviction. At school, Patrick misbehaved frequently.

A school counselor contacted the local chapter of the national youth mentoring program known as Big Brothers Big Sisters. She was concerned because of Patrick's shyness, lying, emotional problems, lack of friends and very poor self-esteem. She knew he needed the one-on-one time, friendship and special attention that a "Big Brother" would provide.

Article Photos

Photo by Betsy Bethel
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Upper Ohio Valley secretary Judi Tarowsky, left, and executive director Shannan Kemp-Watson trim a tree at the Wheeling Artisan Center in preparation for the Festival of Trees, which starts with a Tuxes and Trees Gala on Saturday and runs through Saturday, Nov. 17.

Enter Ross. Since being paired with his "Big Brother," Patrick's outlook on life and behavior in school began to improve. Patrick is now 11 and is passing all of his classes at school. And for the first time, he is considering college. He wants to be an accountant.

Patrick and Ross represent a successful Big Brothers Big Sisters match, said Shannan Kemp-Watson, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Upper Ohio Valley.

"Studies have shown that mentoring does work. With the continued help and support from the community, we can continue to change children's lives, one 'Little' at a time."

Fact Box

All events take place at the Wheeling Artisan Center (above River City Aleworks), 1400 Main St., Wheeling. Trees can be viewed at the special events listed below, as well as from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 13-14; 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16; and Saturday afternoon, Nov. 17, between events.

Tuxes and Trees Gala

Saturday, Nov. 10; 6:30 p.m.

Dinner, dancing to City Lights, valet parking, open bar, tree viewing.

Mother-Daughter Dress-Up Tea

Sunday, Nov. 11; 1 p.m.

Carriage ride, tea, Victorian presentation, cookies, snacks, tree viewing.

Italian Night

Tuesday, Nov. 13; 6:30 p.m.

Dinner includes salad, rolled lasagna, homemade sausage, chicken marsala, green beans, bread. There will be dancing and a wine basket raffle.

World Cuisine Night

Wednesday, Nov. 14 ;

6:30 p.m.

John Marshall Monarch Choir to perform; Irish, Greek, Mexican and German foods will be served.

Craft Beer Sampling/Ugly Sweater Contest

Thursday, Nov. 15; 6 p.m.

Samples of five craft beers and appetizers. Wear your ugly holiday sweater to win a prize.

Dress-a-Bear Breakfast

Saturday, Nov. 17; 9 a.m.

Pancake and sausage breakfast, teddy bear to dress, visit with Santa, balloons, face painting.

Winter Wine Tasting/ Gourmet Food Pairing

Saturday, Nov. 17; 7 p.m.

Samples of five different wines, plus gourmet foods and cheese.

Reservations are required for all special events. For tickets and information, call 304-232-0520.

That "help and support from the community" comes predominately in two ways: through the United Way of the Upper Ohio Valley and through the Big Brothers Big Sisters annual fundraiser, the Festival of Trees - one of the harbingers of the holiday season in the Ohio Valley. The event kicks off Saturday with the opening night Tuxes and Trees Gala at the Wheeling Artisan Center.

"This is our biggest fundraiser," Kemp-Watson said of the week-long event that features beautifully and uniquely decorated trees and wreaths donated by businesses and community members and then purchased back by them or by others to support the organization.

"All the money raised here stays here," Kemp-Watson said.

In addition to the gala and the trees, the festival includes a variety of events such as a Victorian tea and Dress-A-Bear Breakfast, a wine tasting, and a craft beer tasting paired with an Ugly Christmas Sweater contest. Also featured this year are an Italian Night with Italian food and accordion music performed by Bob Zatezalo of St. Clairsville, and a World Cuisine Night featuring Irish, German, Mexican and Greek fare and music by the John Marshall Monarch Choir.

Kemp-Watson said currently Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Upper Ohio Valley has about 40 children matched with mentors. There are 150 on the waiting list. Most of them are boys between the ages of 11 and 13.

"That's mostly because it's so hard to find men who will volunteer," Kemp said. Asked why she thinks that's the case, she said: "I think it's because they look at where they've been in life and they think they're not a good role model. But no one's perfect. And just because you were ornery when you were younger doesn't mean you couldn't be a good role model for a child."

"We're not looking for saints," said Judi Tarowsky, Big Brothers secretary.

Before becoming a "Big," however, applicants are "screened extensively," Tarowsky said. Candidates undergo criminal background checks and driving record checks. They must provide references. Staff members conduct in-depth interviews and, finally, home inspections, during which safety issues are addressed.

Another reason Kemp-Watson said people give for not joining the program is lack of time.

"But any time you spend with these children is more than they're getting right now. Maybe you only have an hour and you just make a run to McDonald's. ... I don't think they grasp how much that means to a child," Kemp-Watson said.

Walt Masters of Moundsville is a former "Big" who was matched with Wheeling resident Bob Dobkin in the 1980s and '90s. The two still see each other from time to time. Dobkin now serves on the Big Brothers Big Sisters board of directors.

Asked what it takes to be a "Big," Masters said: "Patience. A desire to serve. You have to realize that lots of people do not get that opportunity (to have a mentor)."

From Patrick's story, Ross's desire to mentor a child resulted from his own experience as a child being mentored by a caring man in his community. He hopes to be that kind of friend and support for Patrick. He feels that Patrick is "a great kid," and enjoys spending time with him doing outdoor activities, going to Wheeling Nailers games, building things together, and even playing an occasional video game together.

The decorated trees will be on exhibit from Saturday night during the gala through Saturday, Nov. 17, except for Monday, Nov. 12, when the Artisan Center is closed. Trees can be purchased throughout the event on a first-come, first-served basis.

For information, call the Big Brothers Big Sisters office, 304-232-0520.

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