By Colleen Sparks
Watching the comfortable and friendly way in which North Central resident Martez Killens, 38, and Savad Walker, 14, talk, joke around and otherwise interact it might seem as though the two are relatives.
While there is no blood relation between the two, they share a strong bond fostered through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona, a non-profit organization that matches and supports adults with youths for one-on-one mentoring, friendship and fun.
Killens and Savad have been “Big Brother” and “Little Brother” for nearly four years, with Killens watching Savad blossom and the friendship bringing countless benefits to both of them.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” Killens said. “I previously used to coach football. I wanted to have an impact on younger people.”
Killens, a platform architect for a Bay area company, said he was not sure what to expect when he volunteered to be a “Big Brother” but the non-profit organization has supported him every step of the way, offering advice and checking in to see how things are going. As a child growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, he said his parents were very supportive, as were coaches and teachers. Killens played football and basketball in school while Savad plays football at his high school. The two often talk about sports and have gone to Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Suns games together.
“It’s kind of fun seeing him grow,” Killens said. “I’ve seen him make friends. He’s really taken to being on the football team. He’s taken on leadership opportunities within the football team. He’s opened up quite a bit. We have a really strong relationship.”
Savad said he likes talking about sports with Killens and going to him for advice about school. A freshman at North Canyon High School, Savad is already talking to Killens about his plans for college. He would like to go to a university out of state and study pre-medicine to one day become a doctor.
Onika Walker, Savad’s mother, said she is thrilled to have Killens in her son’s life.
“I am a single parent and I’m raising him and his brother by myself,” Walker said. “It’s just such a wonderful resource to have Martez, an older man who has established himself the way he has. Martez is very successful. Savad is able to connect with someone he can look up to, follow in his footsteps.”
Savad and Killens in ordinary times enjoy going to movies, dining at restaurants, hanging out, playing video games at Dave & Buster’s restaurant, as well as throwing a football around and playing basketball together.
Walker said Savad’s father is not part of his life and she is glad that Savad has a positive role model in Killens, another African-American man. She added she has asked Killens for advice on how to handle some things with a boy.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their activities, Savad and Killens still keep connected often by texting, going to a park, hiking and playing sports together. Walker said Killens helps Savad focus on doing well academically and not goofing off in class, as well as talks to him about girls.
Laura Capello, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona, said the organization has about 1,000 active matches and serves about 1,600 youths a year. There are pairs gathering around the Valley, with a fairly even mix of boys and girls working with mentors.
Besides giving the adult mentors the freedom to socialize with their little “brothers” and “sisters” on their own, the organization also offers game nights and other events for all the pairs to participate in. It is providing virtual trivia nights now due to the pandemic.
“Once we match you, we do that very carefully…there’s lots of trainings ongoing,” Capello said. “What I love about our organization is we’re trying to change the trajectory of these kids’ lives.”
She has been paired with her “little sister” since the girl was 8 years old and now the girl is in high school. Case managers work with the adult mentors to ensure things are going smoothly and that the adults do not try to “save” the youths but rather serve as positive influences, Capello said. They help try to ensure the safety of the adults and children and teens. Case managers can help when children and teens in the program are dealing with struggles, including drug abuse in their home and incarcerated parents, to connect them with resources they need.
There were 74 youths participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona with mentors in North Central, as of press time. In this area, there were 16 youths waiting to be matched with a “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” through the organization.
If you’d like to support the organization, it can always use clothes, shoes, bedding and other items donated and it has drop-off bins at its office at 4745 N. 7th St. and other locations. To learn more, visit www.bbbsaz.org.