- All credit for this story goes to Matthew Van Dongen and The St. Catharines Standard
Stan Baerg probably has the largest extended family in St. Cathrines. He has a wife, two daughters and at least 45 little brothers – a number that rises and falls depending on what kind of day Baerg has at work.
Baerg is a caseworker for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of St. Catharines, Thorold & Distirct, a service that matches volunteers with children who are in need of adult guidance, counselling or simple companionship.
The aim is to provide help for “at-risk” children of single parents, or of families where one parent is unable to provide care.
Baerg said volunteers take one or two days a week to spend time with their adopted siblings – taking them to work, playing sports or just “hanging out.”.
The benefits for the kids are huge said Baerg, who works primarily on the “brother” side of the service.
“You can see in some kids that if something isn’t done soon, they could be headed down the wrong road.” he said. “It’s important for these kids to have adult male companionship, to have someone who’ll be there for them.”
Baerg spends a lot of time trying to find new volunteers and setting up matches between an ever-growing list of seven-to-15 year old boys and a relatively smaller pool of adults.
He said that for reasons unknown to him, finding male volunteers is a bigger challenge than finding female volunteers.
Right now, the St. Catharines agency has 75 big and little brothers matched successfully, but there’s another 45 boys on the waiting list and the wait can last anywhere from one to two years.
That’s where Baerg comes in.
A couple times a week, Baerg will spend time with boys on the waiting list – hiking in Short Hills Provincial Park, fishing on Martindale Pond, mini-golfing at the Pen Centre, playing basketball at the gym.
“We have a lot of fun,” he said. “I look forward to it, getting to know them, seeing how they interact with each other, the kinds of things they talk about.”
“Sometimes, if I’m driving someone home, there’ll be some counselling that happens,” he said. “That’s important; if there’s a boy that needs (counselling), I’ll certainly do that.”
Baerg is always there to do what’s needed, said Big Brothers and Sisters board president Mary Lampman.
“We have a very limited budget; sometimes it’s all we can do to pay the staff,” she said. “Stan takes these kids places on his own, often spends his own money on them.”
“It’s remarkable, but it’s not a big deal to him…he’s been doing this sort of thing for kids for 20 years. The desire to help kids is part of what brought Baerg to Niagara in the first place.
In 1973, the Abbotsford, B.C., native visited St. Catharines as part of a church mission project aimed at helping juvenile delinquents in a group home.
“I came here, met a girl and decided to stick around,” he said laughing.
But in addition to his romantic interests, Baerg felt a strong connection with the youths at the group home – and frustration at not being able to help the troubled young people.
“There were so many things wrong for those kids, so difficult for them to build stable relationships,” he said. “it definitely made me want to get more training in this area.”
He got his training in social work at Mohawk College in Hamilton, which led to a placement at Big Brothers in Hamilton. After for years in Steeltown, he transferred in 1092 to the agency in St. Catharines, where he’s been ever since.
During that time, Baerg also immersed himself in youth programs at his church. In addition, his experience as a father has helped him relate to the kids he works with.
“I think it helped in terms of knowing the different aspects of raising teenagers the necessity for discipline, knowing what kids respond to.”
But one of the things Baerg loves about his job is that he never stops learning.
“I’m never bored; when you’re dealing with kids, you’re always learning,” he said.
“You can read a lot of things in a book, but the actual experience is always going to be different.”
A big part of his daily work comes in learning about the people he meets.
Baerg interviews two or three potential volunteers a month, and tries to match the personalities and interests of big brothers and kids. To be a Big Brother, volunteers must be 18 or older, have good references and no police record. Individuals with minor offences who are willing to pursue a pardon can also apply.
They also must be committed to the role. “It’s a serious commitment to make, you’re dealing with a boy’s life.” he said.
“The No. 1 thing is to not break promises. If you say you’re going to show up on a certain day at a certain time, you do it.”
That commitment can do wonders for children starved for male attention.
Aggressiveness, hyperactivity and problems controlling anger are common in kinds Baerg has seen in his 21 years with the St. Catharines agency.
“A quality relationship can help these boys make the right decisions, so they don’t end up in delinquent situations,” he said.
“We had one young man who was having trouble with fighting in school. After he spent some time with a Big Brother, that stopped.”
Baerg recalled another time when agency staff debated whether a 10-year old boy with cerebral palsy would be better off at another agency.
“But then we had a Big Brother come in who said he didn’t have any experience working with the physically disabled but wanted to try anyways.”
“We were amazed at the change in this boy,” he said.
Baerg said that before meeting his Big Brother, the boy had little confidence and tended to “hang back” from school activities.
But after spending time with the volunteer, the boy “started to get involved more, he played baseball…he talked to people about his Big Brother. All of a sudden, he had something to brag about.”
It’s obvious from the big smile on Baeg’s face that the memories that go along with his job are a constant source of pleasure.
“You see such joy in these kids when they talk about their big brother. it certainly keeps me going,” he said.
“It’s not the answer for everything, but it’s nice to be able to provide part of an answer to these difficulties.”
There’s little doubt in Baerg’s mind that big brothers do make a difference – especially now that former little brothers are coming back as adults to take their turn as volunteers.
“It’s great, because it means what happened to them as kids was really important to them, that what we’re doing is important,” he said.
Lampman said Baerg’s devotion to his job has seen the agency through some tough times.
When the agency’s executive director left unexpectedly last August, Baerg did his part to pick up the slack.
“He’s very dedicated; he’s taken about one sick day in the past 10 years,” Lampman said laughing.
“I’m a big believer in the cause,” he said. “The best part of the job, the highlight for me, is to be able to say ‘I’ve got a big brother for your son.'”