Daniel Breslin was amazed when his mother, Jeannie, told him that Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County was sending a volunteer to hang out with him a few hours every week and be his friend.
"They don't get paid for this?" he asked his mom when his big brother, David Rosenstock, came into his life about two years ago.
Today, at age 12, Daniel is still amazed. Sitting next to 27-year-old David in a pizza parlor recently, Daniel says: "It's great having a big brother, but I still can't comprehend why people spend their time this way."
David responds in the gentle way in which he often counsels the little brother he's adopted: "A lot of wonderful things have happened to me in my life, so I wanted to do something for someone else. Maybe someday you'll understand."
Daniel, an only child who converses easily with adults and asks to go "off the record" when talking about his new girlfriend, is quiet for a moment. Then he admits he does know what prompted his mother to call Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
"I wasn't exactly getting along with my dad," he says. "He's not exactly material for the cover of 'Dad' magazine."
Daniel's parents were divorced when he was 2 years old. Since then, Jeannie Breslin has raised him alone. Daniel's father doesn't participate in his life at all, although he lives nearby. Their rare visits, which occur about once a year, have been painful for Daniel, Jeannie says.
The 33-year-old Placentia resident and Cal State Fullerton student is trying to be both mom and dad to her son while struggling to make ends meet as she pursues a college degree that she sees as the key to a better life.
"Because Daniel has had a father who wasn't supportive, I've taken it all on. I've pushed myself a lot," she says. "As a mother, you want to give your child everything. But you can't go to Sears Roebuck and order a father."
However, after seeing an ad for Big Brothers/Big Sisters on TV, she realized that there was a way to give Daniel the positive male influence he had never had.
Big Brothers/Big Sisters is designed for children from single-parent families who need a strong role model, someone "to listen to them, guide them, be a friend," says Executive Director Jo Alexander.
Children from single-parent homes are six times more likely than others to enter the juvenile justice system, and one out of four eventually drop out of school, she notes.
David Rosenstock called Big Brothers/Big Sisters about the same time Jeannie did. He thought of this program when he felt the urge to do some volunteer work because his mother had once been a Big Sister.
He went through a rigorous screening process--including psychological tests, interviews and fingerprinting--before he was matched with Daniel.
Although they liked each other instantly--David impulsively went to Daniel's Little League game immediately after their first meeting--the closeness they have today developed gradually.
At first, Daniel admits, "it was kind of uncomfortable. David was a stranger being a brother to me. I was mind-boggled."
"It was awkward," agrees David, who has a quiet confidence that Jeannie hopes will rub off on Daniel. "I was shy at first, too. We were tentative. I was trying to establish boundaries. Was I going to just take him places like a rich uncle or try to teach him something?"
He ended up doing both, although most of their outings involve simple pleasures. They enjoy going to ballgames and movies, riding go-carts, tinkering with remote-control cars, going out for pizza, playing video games. Occasionally, they hang out at David's house in Brea and watch sports on TV, or his wife, Lisa, joins them on an outing. ("She's handy to have around," Daniel says, "because David doesn't like roller coasters, and she loves them.")
But, Jeannie stresses, Daniel's Big Brother is much more than a "good-time friend."
For example, she recalls, just a few months after he became a Big Brother, David stood at Daniel's side at a memorial service for the boy's grandfather.
"That helped Daniel through a rough spot when I was trying to be a pillar of strength for the rest of the family and couldn't do much for him," Jeannie says.
David has also helped Jeannie by giving her occasional breaks from parenting.
"David will call and say, 'What's good for you, Jeannie?' Sometimes he's taken Daniel when I really needed to study--or needed time to just be me. That's an added gift."
One of the most important gifts David wants to offer Daniel is his own sense of right and wrong.
"I hope to set an example of a good way to interact with society and pass on some values," says David, who has no brothers of his own. "We talk about sharing, thinking of others first. . . . "
"Respect," Daniel interjects.
David also helps Daniel with his homework and keeps track of his grades, which Jeannie says have improved in the past two years.
"David has shown you have to work if you want rewards," she says. "At 12, Daniel isn't saying if he goes to college--he's already telling me what college he wants to go to."
Daniel hesitantly admits that he misses his Big Brother when David is away on business. But David, a sales specialist for a chemical company, tries to keep in touch by phone. And Daniel now feels comfortable giving David a call at home if he wants to share something exciting or talk over a problem such as how to deal with bullies at school.
David says being a Big Brother to Daniel is giving him a glimpse of what fatherhood will be like.
"This helps me keep in mind the type of patience and understanding you need for someone this age," he says.
He's seen Daniel mature in the two years they've been friends but says it's hard to tell how he's influenced his life.
"I don't think changes will manifest themselves for years," he says. "It's not the type of thing where there's instant gratification. The Big Brothers program is just trying to fill a void in a young guy's life. It's definitely helpful for Daniel to have a male influence. Without it, there's a danger that he'd get the message that all males are bums."
Jeannie feels confident Daniel will appreciate the value of David's friendship more and more as he gets older.
"The experience of having a big brother will be with Daniel the rest of his life," she says. "Someday he'll realize what it means to have someone give to him so freely."