Twenty-Five Years Later, ‘Big Buddies’ Still Mentoring

Twenty-Five Years Later, ‘Big Buddies’ Still Mentoring

Carlos Castillo (l. to r.) and Ximena Rua-Merkin reconnected with Arthur Salz at a recent gathering to mark the 25th anniversary of the Queens College Big Buddy Program.  Photo Courtesy of Queens College

Carlos Castillo (l. to r.) and Ximena Rua-Merkin reconnected with Arthur Salz at a recent gathering to mark the 25th anniversary of the Queens College Big Buddy Program. Photo Courtesy of Queens College

A little more than 25 years ago, approximately 5,700 miles from Kissena Boulevard, Arty Salz was inspired to take action.

The Queens College professor was on sabbatical in Jerusalem in the late 1980s, and what he absorbed in the holy city would change the lives of thousands of Big Apple families.

“[I] learned about their program for children of indigent families,” said Salz, now professor emeritus in the school’s Department of Elementary Education. “When I returned to QC in 1989, I knew I wanted to start something similar here.”

That something similar turned out to be Big Buddy, the program that provides a homeless child with a college student who will assume the role of friend, confidante and mentor during an exceptionally difficult time of his or her life. To date, 1,200 homeless kids have participated in Big Buddy, which began with seed money from then-Queens Borough President Claire Shulman—but getting parents on board took a little convincing, Salz recalled.

“They had been disappointed by other programs that started up but then fell through,” he said.

According to Salz, students from any major can participate but must commit to two semesters of mentoring. They receive training, and the homeless parents, usually single mothers, attend an in-depth orientation. Several times a year, all Big and Little Buddies come together for a special event, such as a Mets’ baseball game at Citi Field or an expedition to Harriman State Park upstate. The students receive credit, as well as $12 a day, which mainly covers transportation for the outings.

“All research indicates that homeless kids fall behind in school,” Salz noted, but the Big Buddies help to counter the trend. Although no formal tutoring takes place, the children benefit educationally. They keep journals and take photos of their activities for a scrapbook, writing captions that tell a story, which helps build literacy, Salz noted. Every Big Buddy also brings along a children’s book to read aloud on Saturdays.

While Big Buddy has survived over the years, raising funds to keep it going remains a challenge. Although retired, Salz is still running Big Buddy with the help of two coordinators: Cheryl Marmon-Halm, a retired principal of a borough elementary school, and Elizabeth Schneider, a school librarian—both adjuncts in the Queens College Department of Elementary Education.

One of Salz’s myriad success stories is that of Carlos Castillo. In 1989, after living in public housing, a dangerous hotel, and a borough shelter, Carlos, his mother and siblings eventually landed in a homeless shelter in Jamaica.

But things changed after Castillo met Ximena Rua-Merkin, a Queens College student and Big Buddy. Every Saturday morning for a year, Rua-Merkin picked up Castillo and another Little Buddy, Natasha, 8, and traveled often to Manhattan, visiting museums, parks, street fairs, the zoo and other activities that exposed the children to the larger world.

Castillo, a 14-year veteran of the NYPD, and Rua-Merkin have remained good friends ever since.

But as Salz pointed out, when Castillo and Rua-Merkin first met there were 10,000 kids living in homeless shelters. Today there are about 26,000.

“With so many homeless children in New York City, Big Buddy is more crucial than ever,” Salz said.


By Michael V. Cusenza


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