Chris Whitehead may not look like your typical superhero. He doesn’t leap over tall buildings or wear a cape around campus, but that didn’t stop 10-year-old Jalanden from choosing him for an essay about his favorite hero. Whitehead, a UTC senior, and Jalanden met through Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Greater Chattanooga. Whitehead’s dedication to his little brother earned him the honor of as one of this year’s Mentor of the Year for the Site-Based Mentoring Program.
“I was in shock when I found out. It was a complete surprise. I thought my entire fraternity was getting an award, but it turned out to be just me. I’m very honored,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead, an exercise science major and vice president of Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., became involved with Big Brothers, Big Sisters three years ago after the organization made a presentation on campus.
“Growing up, I didn’t really have a mentor. I didn’t have someone outside of my family to push me to better myself. I really could have used that. And I’ve always wanted a brother. I used to ask my mom for one when I was little,” he said.
After going through an interview and training process, Whitehead was paired with Jalanden through the organization’s school-based program. Once a week, Whitehead visits Jalanden at school for an hour where they eat lunch, read books, play board games, or go outside and play football together.
During their time together, Whitehead helped Jalanden improve his reading skills and gain confidence.
“I always tell him to never say ‘can’t.’ That word shouldn’t be in his vocabulary. I want him have the confidence to believe he can do anything. That way, nobody else can tell him that he can’t. He won’t believe them,” he said.
“One of my proudest moments was when he picked out a book to read from the school’s library. We read the whole book together, from front to back. I realized he was really improving, and what I’m doing is making a difference,” Whitehead continued.
The difference Whitehead is making is what led Emily Barrow, Site-Based Mentoring Director for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Greater Chattanooga, to select him for the Mentor of the Year award.
“I selected Chris because he has been a great mentor to Jalanden. He is very patient and caring. He gets on Jalanden’s level and encourages him to do his best and go beyond he thinks he can achieve. In the past, Jalanden has lacked confidence in reading aloud during class. Chris has really been encouraging him with his reading this year, and Jalanden has really blossomed lately. He now reads aloud with confidence,” Barrow said.
Whitehead and Jalanden have built a strong relationship in their weekly meetings.
“I really feel like he’s my little brother. I know his birthdate and what his favorite candy is. My family in Knoxville knows who he is though they haven’t met him yet. They ask about him all the time,” he said.
“I can’t believe it’s been three years since we first met. He’s grown up so fast. He was just seven-year-old when I met him, and now he’s one of the big kids. It’s true that time goes by so fast when you’re having fun,” he continued.
In addition to mentoring, Whitehead also balances a full course load and a part-time job.
“It’s not as difficult as people think it is. We take for granted the impact we can have on other people’s lives. You can give one hour a week, and that hour will change someone’s life,” he said.
“Just to see the look on his face when he sees me every week,” he continued. “That makes everything worth it to me.”