Newport Coast couple happy with their role as virtual ‘Bigs’

Chris and Fiona Ivey of Newport Beach do a virtual activity with their "Little Brother" Gabriel, who is 7 years old.
Chris and Fiona Ivey of Newport Beach do a virtual activity with their “Little Brother” Gabriel, who is 7 years old.
(Courtesy of Valerie Tatunay)

The January death of former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others due to a helicopter crash was met with intense sadness throughout Southern California.

This was especially true in Newport Coast, where Bryant and his family called home. His death certainly got Newport Coast husband and wife Chris and Fiona Ivey thinking.

“When Kobe passed away, so much came out about how many people we didn’t really realize he was mentoring and the effect he was having on young kids and basketball players,” Fiona said. “We were walking the dog, and Chris was like, ‘I think it’s time for us to do this.’ We had been talking about it for a long time.”

The family was already plenty familiar with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire, as Chris is a longtime board member. The Iveys felt it was time to become mentors themselves as they were getting close to “empty nester” status. Their daughter Delaney is a junior at UCLA, and their son Brendan is a senior at Corona del Mar High School.

The Iveys signed up to co-mentor as a “Big Couple.” One question asked during the Big Brother Big Sister interview project is if the mentor expects any near-term changes to their life.

“We said, ‘No, we’re good, we’re set,’” Chris said. “And then COVID happened.”

The coronavirus didn’t totally derail their plans. Since June, Chris and Fiona have been virtually mentoring their “Little,” 7-year-old Gabriel, over Zoom.

Gabriel lives with his mother Maribel and two older siblings, who are also being mentored through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, in an apartment in Tustin. The family’s last name is withheld from this story per the request of the nonprofit.

The Iveys have a Zoom session of 45 to 90 minutes with Gabriel every other weekend. They also have a group text with Maribel, so they can check in midweek. Maribel speaks mostly Spanish, Chris said, though their interactions with Gabriel are all in English.

Asking a 7-year-old to behave over Zoom might sound like a tall task, but the Iveys have kept Gabriel engaged. When they found out he liked rocks and seashells, they asked to see his collection. When he showed up to a session wearing an Incredible Hulk shirt, they sent him a book about the Hulk, and they continue to send him fun superhero postcards.

Chris and Fiona Ivey also bought two Nerf basketball hoops and two Magna Doodles — one for them and one for Gabriel — and these have been other ways they’ve had virtual fun together.

“It’s amazing how often he says, ‘Can I tell you something?’ or ‘Can I show you something?’” Fiona said. “Really, what has struck me through this is that this little boy just wants somebody’s attention. He wants somebody to see him and hear him, to hear his stories.”

People like the Iveys are certainly needed, said Sloane Keane, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire. In April, the company created a virtual roadmap for its mentors to stay connected to their Littles.

Keane said the chapter’s waitlist has grown by about 30% during COVID-19, to more than 700 kids in the counties of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. Most of those are little boys.

She said the company’s largest service areas in Orange County are Santa Ana and Anaheim, and more than half of the Littles come from a single-parent household.

“Research shows that low-income youth are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than their high-income peers,” Keane said.

“In normal times, the communities in which we serve are economically depressed and have significant obstacles to achieving their full potential. A lot of it ends up manifesting academically … so now you take COVID, and you amplify the fact that isolation is running rampant. The landscape, quite frankly, has been really bleak. One of the advantages to being in mentorship in this one-to-one capacity is that we talk to the volunteer, the parent and the child on at least a monthly basis, for child safety reasons.”

Keane called people like the Iveys “modern day heroes.” But Chris and Fiona just feel like they’re doing their part.

Though things are going well virtually, they can’t wait to finally meet Gabriel in person. One thing he has indicated he wants to do is visit a Dave & Buster’s, to play games.

“It’s totally doable,” Chris said of being a virtual mentor. “In fact, there are unintended benefits from doing it that we weren’t aware of before we were thinking about doing it. If anyone is thinking about wanting to be a volunteer mentor and is hesitating because of the virtual relationship, we would be staunch advocates of just jumping in and doing it virtually.”

“I’m actually amazed at how long Gabriel will stay on Zoom with us,” he added with a laugh.

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