Mentoring experience leads Rancho Santa Fe man to Big Brothers Big Sisters chairmanship

As a senior at Stanford University, Derek Bruton served as a volunteer Big Brother to a young boy whose father was incarcerated.

“The child had no one to really talk to, especially about guy stuff,” said Bruton. “It was a tremendous experience; it left an imprint on my life.”

Bruton, who is now a father of two, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and CEO of a financial services firm, has come full circle with the mentoring program: He serves as chairman of the board of directors of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County.

In that capacity, Bruton helps guide a nonprofit that serves 1,725 boys and girls in San Diego County, providing them with Big Brothers or Big Sisters who act as role models, mentors and companions to their young charges.

Some little brothers and sisters have parents who are deployed overseas with the military, others have parents in jail or prison, and still others simply need someone to talk to or help them with their homework.

Making those positive connections at the formative ages of elementary and middle school can have a long-lasting impact on children, making them less likely to turn to drugs or drop out of school, said Bruton.

“Developing a one-on-one mentoring relationship with these children so they avoid behaviors that could lead them down the wrong path, and really instilling confidence in them, which is what they need at that age, makes a big difference,” Bruton said.

The relationship between “Bigs” and “Littles,” as the organization calls them, carries benefits for both sides.

Adam Johnson, 29, of Pacific Beach, has been matched as a Big Brother to a boy from Carmel Valley for the past two years. Johnson said he got involved through a friend, who gathered a group of people to attend a Big Brothers Big Sisters orientation session.

Johnson said he gets together with his 11-year-old Little Brother, Niko, at least twice a month, when they might have dinner, shoot baskets, do homework, or go for a bike ride. Sometimes they attend sporting events such as Padres games, outings that are organized by Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“He is like a little brother to me. We’re definitely close,” said Johnson. “To be part of a program like this and give back in some way is very rewarding.”

Johnson, who moved to San Diego from Philadelphia several years ago, said he can envision the relationship continuing into the future.

“It’s definitely something that can keep going. Both of us are very happy with the match. I feel we are very lucky, I hit the jackpot, so to speak, a great kid, and a great mother,” Johnson said.

He encouraged others to volunteer with the program, noting, “It doesn’t take that much time,” but makes a big difference in kids’ lives. “The juice is definitely worth the squeeze,” he said.

Haleh Gianni, Niko’s mother, said she signed up her son to provide a positive role model. “I really believe in the positive impact of mentorship for young kids.”

Gianni and Niko’s father are divorced, and while his father does spend time with him, Gianni said, she thought the boy would benefit from a mentor who was not a parent, someone he could relate to and learn from.

When Niko comes back from an outing with Johnson, said Gianni, her son is happy and excited.

“It’s so interesting to see him open the door for me, or say ‘Mom, do you need help? I’ll carry the bags for you.’ Seeing those little things, I know they come from watching Adam,” she said.

According to the San Diego Big Brothers Big Sisters website, potential “Bigs” must be over 18, have a valid Social Security number and commit to volunteer in San Diego for at least one year.

The program carefully screens applicants before they are paired with children, said Bruton. Volunteers meet with their Little Brothers or Sisters twice a month, and each visit or activity runs two to four hours, he said.

Over the next five years, Bruton said, the group would like to expand its programs to serve 4,000 to 5,000 San Diego youths.

Among the specific needs, he said, are mentors who speak Spanish, and those willing to travel to Camp Pendleton or Coronado to serve as Big Brothers and Sisters to the children of deployed military members.

“We’re on a quest to find those,” he said.