When Michael Keyser moved from Ohio to California in 2011, he knew he wanted to get involved in community service.
After his first year as assistant director of the student union at Chapman, Keyser applied to join the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America organization. In December, Keyser was recognized as Big Brother of the Year by the local Orange County chapter for his work with his Little Brother, Jorge.
“Though there have been plenty of learning experiences with Mike, he also gave me the opportunity to just have fun, and know what it was like to have a friend who is there for you, no questions asked,” Jorge wrote in an essay about Keyser for the Big of the Year contest.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County was founded in 1958 and serves more than 2,700 children each year, with the mission to “provide strong and enduring, one-to-one, professionally supported mentoring relationships for every child who needs and wants one.”
Big Brother or Sister of the Year honorees are selected from a group of graduating Little Brothers or Little Sisters who will complete high school. After an internal nomination process narrows the pool of mentors to about 15 individuals, the agency selects the two “Bigs” who best exemplify the organization’s mission.
“In the years (Keyser) has been matched with his Little Brother, Michael has demonstrated a true understanding of mentorship,” Melissa Beck, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire, wrote in an email. “A meaningful mentorship is not measured by the awards or college acceptances a young adult receives, but rather by helping them discover and work toward their own definition of success.”
Beck said that Keyser helped his Little Brother overcome many obstacles on his path toward graduation.
“With Michael by his side, his Little Brother Jorge overcame bullying, low self-esteem and mental health challenges on his path to graduation,” Beck wrote. “As a result of Michael’s constant guidance and support, Jorge feels he has a true support system. For the first time, he sees the possibility of a better future.”
Keyser was first matched with his Little Brother, 17-year-old Jorge, when he first volunteered to be a mentor three years ago.
The matching process involves an interview to find out more about a candidate’s interests and a background check to ensure that the applicant meets the organization’s standards. Then, the organization matches potential “Bigs” to “Littles” in the program. Once accepted, the mentor is required to commit six hours per month to his or her Little, and must be available to do so for at least a year.
“Jorge and I bonded over sports, typical teenage boy stuff and cars,” Keyser said. “A lot of our relationship is giving him one-on-one time when he can be himself without social pressure. It’s time for him to get individual attention from an adult.”
While Keyser and Jorge have shared many experiences in the years that they have gotten to know each other through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, their relationship has not always been that close.
“It took some time. We had a breakthrough into our friendship where it felt like the walls were coming down for both us, where we were able to be ourselves. It took over a year and a half for us to get to that point,” Keyser said. “We were always cordial, we had a good time, we were nice to each other, but it got to a point where we were real with each other and it took almost two years before we got to that point. Since then it’s been really valuable for both of us, a valuable relationship.”
Chapman students who work with Keyser through the University Program Board were not surprised that he received the honor of Big Brother of the Year for his volunteering.
“I think a lot of the qualities that Mike has that he projects through Big Brothers Big Sisters is in his everyday life and his work as well,” said senior Negeen Lotfi, University Program Board chair. “I have seen a lot of that. He’s very empathetic and very patient and really easy to work with and those are qualities that I think everyone sees out of Mike.”
Sara Wanous, University Program Board vice chair, said Keyser is a great mentor.
“I actually didn’t know that he was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program until I had heard that he had gotten that award and it made a lot of sense to me,” Wanous said. “One of the ways that I would describe Mike as a supervisor is the kind of person that’s always pushing you just a little bit and subtly to be better at your job and achieve better things.”
Although not everyone Keyser works with at Chapman knew about his work with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, Keyser said everyone has been supportive of his award.
“I’m big on making myself feel like a part of my community and this makes me feel like I’m part of Chapman’s community – that they’re interested in learning about it and want to celebrate this,” Keyser said. “It’s really a big honor and it’s exciting and I’m glad I get to share it with the people here at Chapman.”
Although Keyser plans on keeping in touch and maintaining a close friendship with Jorge, their formal relationship will end when Jorge graduates from the program after completing high school in June. Then, Keyser will make the decision to match with another Little Brother.