Inspiring People: Ken Keller is proud to be a big brother

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Big and Little Brothers of the year Ken Keller and Levi have been working together for four years.

OKEECHOBEE — Ken Keller and his little brother Levi were chosen Big Brother/Little Brother of the year for Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Lucie, Indian River, Okeechobee (BBBS) this year. Keller has been a Big Brother with the organization for about four years.

After relocating to Florida from Ohio in 2010, Keller went to work for WOKC radio station and his wife began working for the Okeechobee county school system. During their first year in Florida, they lived in Fort Pierce but soon after, they moved to Okeechobee.

Keller was on the United Way’s allocation committee and BBBS was one of the agencies that gave a presentation in order to get funding.

Of course, he had heard of BBBS before, as far back as when he lived in Ohio, he explained. He always knew he wanted to be involved in the organization in some way, but for one reason or another, he never did it in Ohio. When the opportunity presented itself here in Okeechobee, he decided it was time.

He has had the same child (called a little) since he was in the first grade. Levi will be in fifth grade when school starts this year. Keller said it can take a year or more to gain a child’s trust or gain a rapport with them, so having the same big/little team for years is the best thing for the children. “My little is very shy and quiet. The first year, I just remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get him to open up.’ Slowly but surely, it happened, and now, it’s much easier. Children in this program need a male role model, a female role model that’s gonna be there for more than a few months,” he explained.

BBBS has two types of programs — community-based mentoring and school-based mentoring. Keller and Levi are part of a school-based mentoring program, but Levi will age out of that program after the next school year ends and they may transition to the community-based program the following year.

For the last four years, he has been going to Levi’s school and spending an hour a week working with him on his reading and just spent time talking with him and getting to know him.

When the schools closed down in March, he stayed in contact by telephone, nothing formal, he said. He just called to say hello and ask how things were going. Sometimes they read together on the phone. The Kellers have 8-year-old twin boys of their own, and Keller was trying to work from home and help the boys with their distance learning, but he still wanted to maintain contact with his little during that time. “I just want to be somebody in his life he knows he can go to if he needs something.”

Keller and Levi were selected big brother/little brother team of the year for St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties earlier this year after Keller was contacted by Okeechobee’s match support specialist Christina Panigua and asked to fill out an application and write an essay to enter the contest. In February, they found out they won. He’s not sure what normally happens when you win, because immediately afterward, COVID-19 shut down normal everyday activities.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Ken Keller and little brother Levi are part of the school-based program of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Not only is Keller a big brother, but he also serves on the advisory board for BBBS. Each county has its own advisory board, he explained. It’s made up of people who are involved in fundraising for BBBS. They also serve as the liaison between the BBBS offices on the coast and the community. “We’re kind of a buffer between the community and the office, or at least, we advise them on how to reach out to different members of the community,” he said.

Panigua has a one-person office here in Okeechobee, and she is responsible for matching up every little in the program with a big. “As you can imagine, there are more children than there are mentors,” said Keller. “She has a very challenging task, and she does an amazing job with it.”

Keller said they don’t really know what to expect for the coming school year. He doesn’t even know if they will allow the volunteers into the school at all during the first nine weeks. “We are just in a wait and see situation.”

In Okeechobee, the school-based (reading) program is very active and has been for over 13 years, but the community-based program has not really gotten off the ground yet, said Paniagua. There are plenty of littles waiting for a big, she said. They just do not have any “bigs” signed up for the program. The community-based program is the one most people are probably familiar with. This is the one where the big brother or sister might take the child to a ball game or out for ice cream as opposed to the school-based program where they only meet at school.

If you are interested in becoming a big brother or sister, you can go to the website bbbsbigs.org/become-a-mentor/ and complete an online application. Not computer savvy? Not a problem. Call 772-466-8535 and they will point you in the right direction. You can also help by becoming a donor. According to BBBS, “The gift you make today will help us match a child facing adversity with an adult role model. Your gift will allow us to change the life of a child for the better, forever.”

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