Just three years ago, Howie and Hunter were complete strangers.
But, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay program, the two have become best buddies.
In fact, their friendship has earned them the district’s 2019 Big Brother and Little Brother Award.
“It wasn’t something we were striving for, so it made it that much more of a surprise,” said Big Brother Howie Taylor. “It’s quite an honor.”
They were nominated by their match specialist who initially introduced them in 2016 and believes their friendship exemplifies the kind of relationship the program strives to achieve.
Every year, Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs volunteer adults, referred to as Bigs, with youths, referred to as Littles, around the country.
The key is for a Big to be a positive mentor to a child of the same gender – being a confidant, helping with academics and having fun.
“We don’t just play in the park – we’re learning about volunteerism, citizenship, respect [and] responsibility,” Howie explained. “Apparently that’s something that other people are looking at and saying ‘Hey, that’s cool stuff that you’re doing.’”
Before meeting Hunter, Howie said he’d suffered the passing of his younger brother, Chris, in 2014.
Howie and his wife also became empty-nesters, when their two daughters moved away from home.
So when the 52-year-old spotted a flyer for Big Brothers Big Sisters at a local Dairy Queen, he was curious.
He decided to attend a volunteer orientation and was instantly hooked.
“This sounds like an amazing idea,” Howie thought to himself. “This is going to fill that void I had in my life.”
The program’s match specialist soon paired Howie with Hunter – a then shy 13-year-old with an affinity for video games.
Hunter also had experienced a shift in his family: His older brother had left home for college.
Howie initially met Hunter and his family at their Land O’ Lakes home.
Hunter recalls that first meeting.
“There was a strong bond from the beginning, but it got better over time,” Hunter said.
For their first adventure, Howie found a way to get Hunter more engaged outdoors.
He took him to a local park in Land O’ Lakes to fly a drone — something Howie uses in his work.
Hunter was more than happy to take the drone for several spins.
“I’m a programmer by trade,” Howie said. “Obviously I swell with pride when it’s something he’s interested in, too.”
Since then, Hunter’s Big has helped him to see there’s a whole outdoor world waiting to be explored.
They have enjoyed deep sea fishing together, have attended charity walks, have gone to amusement parks, have watched baseball games and have gone to concerts, to name just some of their activities.
They’ve also adopted a signature look: Wearing fedora hats just about everywhere they go.
And, Howie got Hunter involved with the Krewe of Blackbeard’s Revenge – an organization that raises funds for charities every month.
The group also participates in the Gasparilla Kids’ Parade – where the two brothers dress in full costume.
“He makes a great pirate,” Howie said, with a chuckle.
Food is another common interest for the Big and Little.
They took a six-week cooking course, allowing them to prepare and taste new recipes.
They acknowledge that, as pizza lovers, they were reluctant to add spinach as a topping, but they said, the taste grew on them.
While they enjoy having fun, Howie is also ready to help Hunter with homework so he maintains good grades.
“I was struggling with ASL (American Sign Language),” the teen recounted. “We both watched it together and figured it out.”
Howie said that he wants Hunter to become a well-rounded adult.
He takes Hunter to autism and cancer walks not only to be charitable, but also to help him develop a sense of gratitude for what he has in life.
The mentor also teaches the importance of financial responsibility and punctuality.
But, Hunter isn’t the only one on the receiving end.
Howie has also learned valuable lessons, too. The friendship has helped him to become more patient and a better listener.
“I wait for him to ask for advice,” Howie said. “Sometimes he doesn’t need somebody to solve a problem for him. Sometimes he just needs somebody to listen to him.”
He also credits Hunter for giving him a chance to feel like a kid again.
During their three-year friendship, Howie has watched Hunter grow physically, and in other ways, too.
“I saw a lot of myself, when I was that age, in him,” Howie stated.
Later this year, the pair will attend a Big Brothers Big Sisters bowling event.
Such fundraisers help raise money, but state funding is needed, too.
Howie plans to visit Tallahassee to speak with legislators, to seek more state assistance for the program.
Both Howie and Hunter are also looking forward to being recognized at an awards ceremony in September.
Both plan to don tuxedos.
They’re also now eligible to compete for the Big Brother and Little Brother national award.
No matter how that goes though, they both feel like they’ve already won the best prize: The mentorship program may have brought them together, but they’re confident they’ll be lifelong friends.
To learn more about the Bay Area program, visit BBBSTampaBay.org.
Published February 27, 2019