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Joy Gerhartinger lost her father when she was 4 years old. She knows what it's like to be a youngster without a dad.
That's something she shares in common with Drew, the 10-year-old "little brother" who has come into her life through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Portage County.
But Gerhartinger, who has three adult children and six grandchildren, shares a lot more with Drew.
Both love the outdoors, including hunting and fishing. They love animals. They love being "out in the country."
"He's a country boy and we love that," said Gerhartinger, who enjoys spending time with Drew at the home she shares with her husband in Edinburg. "He's a lot of fun. I like his excitement."
Drew echoes his "big sister." "We have lots of fun," said the future fifth-grader.
While most of the matches Big Brothers Big Sisters makes pair an adult and a youngster of the same sex, Gerhartinger isn't the only woman volunteer who's matched with a boy, nor is she the first.
"We have so many boys waiting for a match," said Andrea Neidert, program manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Portage County, "rather than have them sit with nobody, we'll consider a match with a 'big sister.'"
Because the focus of the program has shifted from role modeling to mentoring, opposite-sex matches can work, she added.
Little brothers and little sisters range in age from 6 to 17 years old. Their mentors must be at least 18; the oldest in the Portage County program is over 70. Volunteers must undergo an interview and background check as well as training and monthly coaching.
Gerhartinger retired as a licensed practical nurse after nearly 40 years and found herself with time to be a "big sister." The program requires volunteers commit to 12 hours per month. There's also a one-year commitment. "We hope it's more than a year," Neidert said.
She inquired about becoming involved with the Portage County program and was matched with Drew, whose mother, Rosemary, thought he would benefit from a match.
Gerhartinger said she asked to be paired with a boy because she wanted to do activities as a couple with her husband, Kenneth, who also has been certified for the program.
She and Drew bonded easily. "He asked me 50 million questions the day we met," she recalled.
They get together mainly on weekends and enjoy a variety of activities. They've planted sunflowers together, enjoyed trips to Dairy Queen, explored the family farm, gone fishing at Wingfoot Lake State Park -- "he loves to fish," she said -- and Drew has found a new friend in Joy's dog, Molly.
Drew said he enjoys "doing stuff" with his big sister and is looking forward to summer activities with her.
His mother, Rosemary, is pleased with the match. "I think it's opening him up a bit," she said.
Big sister Joy is enjoying her new role, too. "I like to see him smile," she said. "I like to see how he lights up when we do things together."
Anyon interested in becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, should contact Neidert at 330-296-6655. Big Brothers Big Sisters is an agency of Family & Community Services.