Big Brothers Big Sisters to grow services in north Okaloosa County with help of Sheriff's Office

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

A friendship can be the foundation of an extraordinary future for children, with even the smallest impact changing the trajectory of a child’s life. 

Paula Shell, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida, knows that from experience. The nonprofit organization provides one-to-one mentoring for kids facing adversity, and after seeing great success is aiming to expand services into north Okaloosa County with the help of local law enforcement. 

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Currently, about 50 children in the organization’s service area of Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Bay counties are waiting to be matched with a volunteer. When paired together, children are referred to as “littles” and volunteers become “bigs.” 

Big Brothers Big Sisters representatives met with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office personnel to discuss the program and need for volunteers. From left are Rique Gwin, John Holquin, Sheriff Eric Aden, Paula Shell, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida, Capt. Gary Venuti, Lt. Demeika McClendon and Maj. Shannon Tait.

“We take volunteers through a very extensive screening process and information-gathering session, where we gather likes, dislikes, preferences and then match them to the needs of the children that we have on the waiting list,” Shell said. 

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Mentors provide support, guidance and friendship for children through the formative years of their lives. The organization primarily works with kindergarten-aged children to youths age 18, but will let matches stay open until the "littles" are well into their 20s. 

North Okaloosa is a lot of ground to cover, and previously only one staff member traveled there. However, a board of some seven members was recently formed by a volunteer and is looking for ways to build partnerships and to grow the organization’s work in the area. 

Father, son to cycle up mountains for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida

“We know there is a need in the northern end, and it’s our goal to grow services up into the northern end,” Shell said. “I think that they’re ready to step up and to change what’s happening in the community with Big Brothers Big Sisters, help spread the word. I can’t do it by myself; that’s why I rely on board members.”

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office is leading part of the effort.  A few years ago the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization began an initiative to build a stronger relationship between law enforcement and the community.

The initiative is referred to as Bigs with Badges and matches deputies with children in the communities where they work.

“We just started pushing Bigs with Badges within our unit, and also the agency,” said Lt. Demeika McClendon with the OCSO Youth Services division. “We’re definitely on board with it and trying to promote it, and we're trying to get our agency involved heavily.” 

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McClendon said she expects the process to be smooth because school resource officers with the Sheriff's Office already “work hand in hand” with children every day. 

“Every day they go into work, they see a positive role model in law enforcement,” McClendon said. “So we're just bringing the Big Brothers Big Sisters Bigs with Badges program and trying to integrate that with the SROs that want to volunteer.”

Okaloosa County match Big Sister Siara Miller and Little Sister Alexandria pose in 2018.

One sergeant has been a volunteer with the program for quite some time. After meeting with the organization last week, several deputies, including McClendon herself, also signed up.  

She has yet to be matched with a little sister or brother, but she believes the program will have a great impact on the community. 

“I am looking forward to that. I am in the process of being paired with one,” McClendon said. “These officers — building that relationship and mentoring, that lasting impression that they're going to leave on that kid is just instrumental. I mean, you can't buy that. That's something that will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

Many school resource officers have had great success stories with the children they have worked with, and McClendon said she believes the Bigs with Badges program will only further that. 

“They become adults and have families and they come back and say, ‘Look, if you weren't there, I probably wouldn't have graduated and probably wouldn't have been where I am,’” McClendon said. “So I know that relationship with law enforcement and all that mentoring is very important.”

Shell said many of the children in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program come from single-parent households, but the organization also assists two-parent households in special circumstances. Many children are enrolled in the program through word of mouth or referrals from school districts. 

Other common circumstances include children being raised by their grandparents or children from military or foster families. Shell has been matched with her little, Hope, for more than eight years now. 

“Hope is being raised by her great-grandfather. He’s 90 years old, so he just can’t do it all by himself,” Shell said. “She doesn’t have any female guidance in her home, and so it does make a difference.”

Big Brother mentor Mike Duhart and 11-year-old Javon buckle their helmets before they ride the paths at Liza Jackson Park in Fort Walton Beach in 2018.

The impact isn’t always immediate. It takes time for the relationship to develop, Shell said. But over time she has seen a difference in Hope, who has become like family to her.

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Many big sisters and big brothers have phenomenal stories of the impact they’ve seen, not just on the children but in their own lives. 

“I think each of us in our own lives can say that somebody has impacted us growing up as adults, and if we can just do that for those littles that are connected with us right now, then they’re going to be changed,” Shell said. “Our bigs say that they get more out of it than their little does.”

Volunteers are required to be at least 18 years and must go through an extensive vetting process. Shell said all volunteers are fingerprinted and go through many background screenings such as driving checks. The process is free. 

“I say 18 or 118 (years old), I don’t care as long as you have a heart for children and you want to impact a child’s life in a positive way and change your community,” Shell said. “Because when we put bigs and littles together, you know we’re going to be impacting the community as a whole and making a change.”

All volunteers, including law officers, are expected to meet a weekly commitment of visiting their little sister or brother at least two times in person. 

The organization has a significant need for male volunteers. Of the 50 children on the waiting list, Shell said more than 35 of them are boys who would benefit from a male role model. 

To get started, visit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida's website at or call 850-433-5437. 

“I’m just excited about what’s to come, and we do need volunteers. Our kids need us,” Shell said. “It opens their eyes to things that they would never think that they could accomplish or do because they’ve had a big brother or sister. The stories are all around us. They’re there and we know that mentoring does make a difference.”