When John Speer volunteered to be Joe Asbridge’s mentor more than a decade ago, Joe was a second-grader at Mueller Elementary School with an age-appropriate toothless smile.
Joe’s hopes were simple: He wanted to know whether Speer would take him roller-skating.
Now they talk about Asbridge starting college next fall at Wichita State University and what to expect from his career plans of doing technical theater work.
Speer is Asbridge’s Big Brother, one of the adult volunteers who mentor 1,500 children in Sedgwick County through the Big Brother Big Sister program. About 6,000 are served in Kansas.
Speer rattled off a list of cool things he and Asbridge have done together over the years: attended circuses, toy and car shows; cleaned the garage; washed the car; spent time in the shop building stuff, including a pinewood derby car.
“Built a tree house,” Asbridge interjected as the two ate lunch together recently at Five Guys Burger and Fries.
Speer, a longtime radio personality at KFDI and KEYN, is in his sixth year overseeing the adult program for the Valley Center school district’s learning center and teaches a life skills class at the middle school. He and his wife, Pattie, have five grown children and seven grandchildren.
But being a Big Brother or Sister doesn’t require a lot of kid experience, he said.
“If guys would just understand,” Speer said, “you don’t have to come up with new stuff. You just take whatever skills you have and hang out with them. Just teach regular life skills
“A Big Brother is somebody who can share life and help guide them through the good and bad choices.”
About 800 Sedgwick County children are on the waiting list to be matched with an adult. Boys consistently make up 75 percent of that list and have to wait up to two years for a match, said Mark Eby, executive director for the program in the county and chief operations officer for the organization statewide.
Wait time for girls is usually a month or two, Eby said.
There’s a longer waiting list for boys because more women than men volunteer to be mentors. Women are matched only with girls and men only with boys, Eby said. Sometimes couples serve as mentors together for a child.
Speer cringes at the thought of such a long waiting period. A lot can happen in a boy’s life in two years.
Much of the time he spends with Asbridge is just folded into his family’s life. Asbridge said his all-time favorite outing was going to a Speer family reunion in Arkansas.
Asbridge is Speer’s second Little Brother. His first is now 30, married and recently became a dad.
“This isn’t a sacrifice on my part,” he said. “What’s more valuable than watching a young boy grow up to be a good man?”
Asbridge was 18 months old when his dad left the family and moved out of town, leaving Suzie Asbridge to raise Joe and his two older brothers alone. She works the overnight shift at a Kansas Turnpike toll booth.
Her other sons, Jarrod and Jacob, also had Big Brothers and greatly benefited from those relationships, she said.
“Joe had his two older brothers,” Suzie Asbridge said, “but that’s not quite the same as an adult male. John has been like a replacement father.
“He was there to answer questions that you don’t want to ask your mom. If it was important enough, John would clue me in about it. Otherwise, John would handle it.”
Nearly 90 percent of the children who have a Big Brother or Sister in Sedgwick County have seen their grades improve, according to the organization. Speer helped Asbridge through some academic struggles when he was in middle school.
Asbridge’s schoolwork improved enough that he was able to get an academic scholarship in addition to financial aid to attend Wichita Collegiate since his sophomore year. He’ll graduate with a high B average on May 26 and has earned two academic scholarships to WSU, his mother said.
“John always pushed him to do a little bit better in school,” Suzie Asbridge said.
Asbridge agreed. But he said the greatest benefit to having a Big Brother has been on the emotional side.
“I felt like I was out of place because my friends all had dads at home,” Asbridge said. “John was that figure for me. Anytime I have a problem or I’m not sure what to do in a situation, he’s the first call I make.”
When Asbridge was being presented his Eagle Scout award, he invited Speer to come up with him so Speer could receive the Scout pin usually given a dad.
Speer cried that night.
He also encouraged Asbridge to follow his mom’s advice and call his dad at least a couple of times a year, because his dad has been sick for a while.
“I call,” Asbridge said.
He has also caught Speer’s sense of humor.
Last fall, about the time her husband turned 60, Pattie Speer was taking Asbridge’s senior picture.
“Hey, John, come over here,” he said. “We can both have our senior pictures taken.”
Speer taught Asbridge how to drive. Sometime he’d test his Little Brother’s skills in empty parking lots.
“He’d shout out, ‘Dog!’ to see my reaction and if I’d stop in time,” Asbridge said.
“He ran over the dog a couple of times,” Speer said.
Technically, the Big Brother-Little Brother relationship ends when Asbridge turns 18 in July. Unofficially, the relationship will keep going.
“We are matched for life,” Asbridge said.
But one thing will change when he turns 18.
“I plan to sign up to be a Big Brother,” Asbridge said. “There are other boys out there who need a mentor.”