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Military families get some reinforcements

For a couple of hours each week, 9-year-old Wesley Forde meets up with Virgil Pippens, a retired Marine and volunteer with Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Both love sports, so they’ll take in a local football game, see a movie, go out to eat or just hang out.

While the organization has long been pairing kids with adult mentors, Wesley, his mother, Jamika, and Pippens are on the vanguard of a push to serve more children from military families.

Founded in 2004, the Military Mentoring Program started here last July, says Michelle Hedrich, executive director of Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters on Wallace Street in Fredericksburg.

“We are in the unique position in the Fredericksburg area of serving all the military here,” she said, with Fort A.P. Hill, Marine Corps Base Quantico, the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren, and Fort Belvoir all within about 50 miles. “We’re really trying to reach out and let folks know we’re here and can meet this need.”

With one parent absent for long periods during deployments, frequent moves required in military life and other pressures, “sometimes children in military families have special needs,” she said.

The armed forces looked at creating a mentoring program, but opted instead to work through Big Brothers Big Sisters’ national organization. Fredericksburg is among 25 participating jurisdictions in 16 states.

“We’re research-based and proven to be effective, and that’s one of the things the military looks at,” Hedrich said.


As of March, Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters had made 10 matches. Two of those ended when one mentor had a family issue; another was re-deployed. Seven children are waiting to be matched with mentors, Hedrich said. Military service is not required for mentors.

“We’ve been pleased with how it’s going so far,” she said.

A grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation provided enough money for 16 matches over two years.

Prospective mentors fill out an application, followed by an interview, with a criminal background check and references required.

“We’re very deliberate in which volunteer goes with which child,” Hedrich said. “We really want the volunteer to understand that they’re here to reinforce the child’s connection with their parent.”

The mentor and the parent decide a convenient time to meet and work out a schedule.

“We try to have it consistent, so the child knows what to expect. The [mentor] goes to their house and picks them up. They go out and do fun things,” Hedrich said. BBBS sends out a weekly schedule of events of interest in the community or that the organization is hosting.

“We often say to mentors, ‘Do what you’re already planning to do that day. Washing a car or going to the grocery store,’” Hedrick said.

Each pairing comes with a BBBS staffer, a “match advocate” who talks regularly with the child, parent and volunteer “so we can catch any challenges,” she said.

“People ask us, ‘What is the goal?’Mainly, it’s to show up on the doorstep every week. If we do that, the program will work,” Hedrich said.

The child–mentor relationship can be more complicated with military families, she said.

“We help them cope with separation they may have from parents, concern about parents’ safety, moving or integrating into a new community and having friends,” Hedrich said.

“We want them to know that this community cares about them, and that we value their parents’ service to our country.”

Wesley’s mom, Jamika Forde, served in the Marines from 2002–2011. She moved from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., to Stafford County in 2008 with Wesley and his 12-year-old sister, Jaylynn.

A friend stationed with Forde in Cherry Point suggested she try to line up a Big Brother for Wesley here.

Forde, who now works at Mary Washington Hospital, filled out the paperwork. Wesley was on a waiting list for two years because of a shortage of male mentors. She found out about the Military Mentoring Program last year.


Wesley was matched six months ago with Pippens, 49, who also lives in Stafford.

“I wanted [Pippens] to be understanding of the needs my son may have. He’s very accommodating with that,” she said. “

She’s happy that a male role model with a military background is spending time with her son, and that Wesley has him to talk to about school and other things.

“So far, it’s been awesome,” she said.

Wesley said he enjoys the things they do together, especially the sports.

One week, Pippens went to one of Wesley’s flag-football games at the Fredericksburg Field House.

“He’s cool,” Wesley said.

Pippens, 49, served 22 years in the Marines, retiring in 2005. He currently works as a civilian air-traffic controller.

The father of three grew up in the inner city of Buffalo, N.Y., and came from a single-parent home himself.

Pippens heard about Big Brothers Big Sisters at a local barber shop where the proprietor invited a representative to speak.

“A lot of us were really interested in that,” he recalled. “The timing was right, and they also shared the need for African–American men, so I signed up.”

Pippens volunteered briefly with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Alexandria in 2007, not knowing that there was an office here.

“You try to find things in common. The first thing was football. [Wesley] likes to watch the games. He’s a very playful guy,” Pippens said.

“I wanted him to know I was a fun guy who likes to joke and is active.”

Their second meeting was a football game at Colonial Forge High School.

“It was a cold night, and he had a good time,” Pippens said.

Later, “We went to some movies he wanted to see, and to an auto show, and he started opening up. He had never been on Metro, so I took him on the train.”

Pippens said Wesley talks a lot about military life and his time on a base. “You can tell he’s the kid of a military member, and that’s a positive” because his life now is less structured.

Wesley’s mother “is concerned when he goes out to play,” Pippens said.

“Kids learn from peers, and outside her door, there’s no control. I just want to be able to talk to him about those things,” he said.

Also, about “things he doesn’t like doing, and making him accountable and doing his homework.”

Said Pippens, “I was blessed with a family very much involved in my life, and the same with Wesley.”

Wesley’s father lives in Florida. The two talk on the phone.

“So far, for me, it’s been very rewarding,” Pippens said. “Not having a father, it makes you feel different. On top of that, I look at young African–American boys today, there’s so much decline in their success in life because there’s no positive role model and they’re not exposed to different things.”


Not all the mentors in the program have a military background.

Cody Wilmer, 35, who lives in Fredericksburg and owns a small business in Stafford, was paired with 11-year-old Yosiah Barone of Stafford last summer.

“Yosiah and I have made a good match. He likes a lot of kinds of activities, which makes it more fun for me to plan things to do,” Wilmer said.

He spends a few hours with Yosiah about once a week.

“Sometimes we just go to the YMCA or library. But probably every two or three weeks we do something a little more exciting.”

Wilmer taught Yosiah how to use a 3-D printer. They’ve been to a Redskins game, to museums, a county fair and a science and engineering festival in Washington, for example.

“One of the things I had the most fun with was planning a Civil War relic and gold-panning treasure hunt,” Wilmer said.

Angie Barone, Yosiah’s mother, served in the Marines from 2000–2004. She is divorced from Yosiah’s father, who serves in the military in California. Barone has lived in Virginia for about eight years.

Her oldest son, Angel, 12, has a Big Brother through the program here. She also has a 4-year-old daughter and works multiple jobs to support the family.

“It helps me because there are times [the children] want to do activities and I have to work,” she said.

“They help me to instill values and they back me up. I wanted to make sure someone is there for them, other than me and show them that they are important.”

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431


Along with its Military Mentoring Program, Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters has other mentoring opportunities for African–American, Hispanic and Native American children, along with its Amachi program for kids with incarcerated parents.

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Retired Army Col. Rod Davis’ latest mission is expanding a mentoring initiative for children of military parents across the country.

Davis works out of Norfolk; the program is funded by Jack in the Box Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Fredericksburg, with its proximity to Marine Corps Base Quantico, is among the latest additions to Big Brothers Big Sisters’ national Military Mentoring Program.

“Fredericksburg been on my mind for some time,” said Davis, the director, who works out of his home in Norfolk. The national program is headquartered in Dallas.

“The Rappahannock area is so important,” he said, with Quantico, known as “The Crossroads of the Marine Corps,” a big focus because of the Marine families on base, and those passing through for training.

The program was launched in San Diego with Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2004. It’s grown to 25 sites this year, serving about 2,000 military children from age 7 to 17, and with more than 3,000 adult volunteers. Davis says it costs the agency about $2,000 per child.

Other locations are in the works, including one in Norfolk.

“When it comes to military children, we want our ‘Bigs’ to reinforce the connection between the child and the parent And, second, that military values are very important. We acknowledge and respect [them.]”

Davis says the organization looks not only for military connections in its mentors.

“We look for leaders, individuals in other walks of life as well. You don’t have to be in the military” as a Big Brother or Big Sister mentor.

“I’m a father. I love children, and I know the impact of a father, a parent, in a child’s life,” he said.

Among the challenges, “The first thing we had to focus on was making sure the affiliated agencies affiliated with the program were oriented on military culture,” Davis said. He’s visited 22 of the locations, including Fredericksburg, to talk about that.

“And second, we had to make sure we’re in the right places.”

About 9 months into his current job, Davis, 58, served 26 years on active duty. He retired in 2004 after a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Prior to heading up the mentoring program, he served as a consultant for the National Guard Youth Challenge Program, a workforce development manager, nonprofit executive director and as a consultant for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Military children are some of the most resilient,” he said. “They face a lot of challenges, given the nature of military life. So, if we can help them and contribute to their life overall, we’re bolstering their resiliency.”

—Rusty Dennen