With its high hopes and unrivaled support for local public education, La Cañada Flintridge is known as a community that cares deeply about its children.
Over the years, a number of La Cañadans who support L.A.’s Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorship program have quietly extended that concern to kids who haven’t had all the breaks.
Such willingness to make a positive impact on young lives is perhaps no better illustrated than by Vance “Mike” Trueblood, who was recently named National Big Brother of the Year from among approximately 170,000 volunteers for nearly 400 Big Brothers groups.
Trueblood, 81, is in his fourth year as a mentor and role model for 13-year-old Joseph, who came to the organization’s attention as a child who has faced the challenge of having a parent in prison.
The pair gets together every other Saturday for one thing or another — tennis lessons, museum visits, fishing trips, catching a matinee, reading and studying together, or just tossing a ball and talking about the future — all the while building the kind of relationship typically found among family.
“We’ve been finding our way into things he enjoys doing and expanding on them. In many ways I probably do treat him like a grandchild. It comes naturally,” said Trueblood, who in fact has 12 grandkids, ages 10 to 23, by four adult children.
Trueblood, whose achievement was recognized last week during a La Cañada Flintridge City Council meeting, will travel to Texas in June to receive the national honor alongside Joseph.
Before becoming a Big Brother, Trueblood joined the group’s board of directors in the mid-1980s and later served time as its president.
Then employed as an advertising agency manager, the now 46-year La Cañada resident found himself recruited to help publicize the group by fellow La Cañadan Mike Smith one Sunday after church at St. Bede’s.
Mike Smith, owner-operator of the Bob Smith Toyota dealership that bears his father’s name, and other members of the Smith family have remained among the organization’s top donors for decades, said Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters President Ken Martinet, who lives a stone’s throw from La Cañada in the Chevy Chase Canyon area of Glendale.
“The idea of Big Brothers really appealed to me because I had the greatest dad in the world, and I just couldn’t imagine how these young boys were growing up without a father-figure role model,” said Smith, who was himself recruited to the group’s board by a La Cañada resident, Dr. Jim Poletti.
As for Trueblood, “I never think of him being the age that he is because he’s so outgoing an interested in other people. To go out and be a Big Brother at age 77 shows there’s no boundaries for him,” Smith added.
Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters has matched 269 children with adult mentors — 90 of them through its Children of Promise program, which relies heavily on federal funds to serve children like Joseph who have, or have had, a parent in prison.
Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters currently has about 60 children waiting to be matched with a mentor — most of them boys due to a shortage of male volunteers, said Vice President of Programs Rosario Diprima.
He’s pushing for an influx of private donations to help fill that gap for children like Joseph and Clarissa, a 9-year-old Children of Promise participant currently mentored by La Cañada resident Laurie Hiller.
Hiller, an attorney and mother of two, began her journey with Clarissa about a year ago
“You might think you don’t know what you can say or do to change a kid’s life, but it’s like all you have to do is show up and some kind of magic happens,” said Hiller.
“Sometimes we just bake cupcakes or take the dog for a walk. Often these kids are coming from backgrounds with a lot of chaos at home, so a lot of it is just giving them some time that’s just about them,” she said. “I’m going to take her to the Fiesta Days Parade. It’s pretty easy.”
The impacts of that kind of time and attention aren’t lost on Fernando Juarez, 23, who in the summer of 1996 found a mentor and father figure for life in La Cañada resident Kurt Kocourek, 80.
“My father left when I was 6, so Kurt was my father figure, really, and I still consider him like a father. My mother would go to him for certain things — he explained the birds and the bees from a boy’s perspective,” said Juarez, who is about to begin a second tour in Iraq with the U.S. Army.
“Growing up in a bad neighborhood, a lot of my friends ended up in gangs. He kept me on track and I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for him, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” added Juarez, now a husband and father himself.
The feeling is mutual, said Kocourek, a retired probation officer and federal court investigator.
“He’s very much like my son — a great kid who grew up into a wonderful adult. I’m happy to say I think I helped out with it,” he said.
Many Big Brothers and Big Sisters make a special effort to emphasize the importance of education.
Juarez credits Kocourek’s help with reading for getting him to Cal State Northridge.
Trueblood, who has worked as a marketing professor and currently chairs the Family Business Council at Cal State Fullerton, already has Joseph thinking about college — and with a real promise for success.
At a recent Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters fundraising dinner, USC athletic director Pat Haden met Joseph and offered him a scholarship to the school as long as he minds Trueblood and keeps his grades up, the pair announced at last week’s City Council meeting.
That’s a lucky kid, and it brings Trueblood great joy.
“I feel in heart and soul that I get as much benefit out of each Saturday as Joseph does,” he said. “I’ve seen shyness grow into self-confidence, and [the relationship] expands me, too. It goes both ways.”