On Being a Big and my Father's Son

by Christopher D. Cathcart

In 1995, I made a decision that would alter my life forever. I officially signed on as a mentor for Big Brothers of greater Los Angeles. Working with the program has been one of the true blessings in my life, but before I start sounding like a Hallmark card, let's back this thing up a bit.

In truth, giving back to the community has been a way of life for me for as long as I can remember. That lesson was taught by my dad, Willie Cathcart. He was always helping people one way or another, working with my little league teams (coaching the coaches, really), or involved in something positive. His was the best kind of example – letting his actions speak volumes. I never once heard him vocalize the need to “give back.” When community service is viewed as a way of life and not a special event, it's easier to get started and stay active. I learned that early, thanks to dad.

But that doesn't mean it's easy. Anything worthwhile comes with sacrifice; something else he taught me. Again, most of my life I have been involved in some form of community service and, while always rewarding, it still requires I cut down on a little so-called “me” time. And in this era of self-indulgent social networking, narcissistic reality TV shows and a abundance of “life coaches” teaching you to find, well, a better you, taking time away from self can be more than a notion.

Here's where programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters come in. We all need help reminding us how important giving back and helping others, particularly young folk, is to our own well-being. We all want to be important; we all want to be special, no doubt. Well, helping someone in need is the universal method of underscoring ones own importance, uniqueness and value. There is no greater way to be special than through service to others. This was a lesson I had to learn on my own, but dad put me on the path.

As I write about in my book on volunteerism, “The Lost Art of Giving Back,” when I started working with Big Brothers some 17 years ago, I was not in a good place in my life. I had just moved to Los Angeles, my love life was on the skids and my career was stuck in the proverbial mud. However, after attending the Million Man March in Washington, DC, I decided it was time to get active in my new town, and I turned to Big Brothers.

Needless to say, when I started working with the organization I noticed an almost immediate sense of pride and belonging; I felt good about myself even if other things in my life weren't clicking yet. I began my Big Brothers work via a creative writing project in South Central Los Angeles. That led to working with a sports program for unmatched littles, then a three-year, school-based pairing and, finally, my first and still on-going one-on-one match with my little brother Jalen. With each step, I've always gotten back more than I gave. I always leave feeling really good about “me.” Some may call that selfish, I call it a win-win situation.

Now back to dad. Every time I'm with my little, or involved in any form of community service, I think about him. I hear his voice in my voice, and I feel his presence in any number of activities. And before you get sad, please know that Willie Cathcart is very much alive and still active in the community in his native South Carolina. He works with kids, teaching farming skills and valuable life lessons from back in the day. Some of the ones he taught me, I imagine.

This Father's Day, as with all Father's Days, I reflect back on him. I appreciate the lessons and examples he's instilled in me. I also appreciate the opportunity Big Brothers affords me to act on those things dad taught me. Sadly, I am not a father myself and, at this stage in my life, I may never be. But I pray I'm a good son, and a good Big Brother.