Big Brother Inspires Teenager

Pair Explores Interests In Sports, Music, Literature

September 09, 1998|By Stefanie Dell’Aringa. Special to the Tribune.

Reading Homer’s “Odyssey” isn’t how most 15-year-olds would spend a summer afternoon. But Edwin Perez, who lives in the Pilsen neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, had a little guidance from his Big Brother in reading the classic.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Perez and his Big Brother, Mike Plemmons, crack open their copies of the book and pick up where they left off the last time they read together.

Each takes a turn reading a paragraph, stopping only when Plemmons needs to clarify a word or explain a situation to Perez.

To outsiders, these two might seem like an unlikely pair. But they’ve been spending time together for close to three years. They were matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago, 28 E. Jackson Blvd.

The program, which has served more than 6,000 children since it began in 1967, matches volunteer adult role models with children from single-parent or foster-parent homes.

Perez has been without a father since he was preschool age–his parents divorced and his father returned to Mexico. His mother remarried a year ago.

Plemmons, 47, knows what it’s like to not have a father around. When he was growing up, there were many occasions when he was separated from his father, a sergeant in the Air Force, because of his military duties.

Plemmons began thinking about being a Big Brother after a friend died from brain cancer.

“He had a wonderful family with three kids, and during the time he was ill, I spent a lot of time with them,” he says. “One day, because it became very obvious to her (the friend’s wife) that I liked kids, she suggested that I might try Big Brothers.”

Plemmons, who lives in Streeterville, knew it was a big commitment. “You have to agree to meet once every two weeks for a year,” he says. “You have to be there, and I think that deters a lot of people.”

He also had to go through a training program and background check.

“Mike has been great for Edwin,” says program manager Renee Tucker, who was responsible for matching Plemmons and Perez. “I think that Mike’s involvement has definitely helped in Edwin’s school work. Mike is incredibly dedicated and committed to helping Edwin academically.”

Plemmons’ interests and hobbies and those of his Little Brother were considered when the match was made.

“I had to write down what I like to do and they said they would find a similar person like me, with the same hobbies,” Perez explains. “I felt a little strange, but as soon as I got to know him, we got along very well. He has helped me with a lot of things.”

The two share a common love of sports, music and literature. They have attended sporting events, gone to movies, read books and gone bowling.

Two years ago, Plemmons took Perez to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra because Perez had discovered he enjoyed classical music after listening to one of his mother’s compact discs.

“One day he said to me, `Who is this Beethoven guy?’ ” Plemmons recalls. “I thought it was really neat that a 15-year-old would be interested in Beethoven.”

Because of past experiences, though, he was fearful that Perez would talk during the concert. “Right in the middle of a movie, he would stop and say something full-throat, like, `Hey Mike! Why are they doing that?!’

“So I said, `Edwin, you must not talk to me during the performance.’ I was so paranoid.”

At one point during the performance, Perez noticed that the violinists were plucking the strings. He leaned over and whispered, “Mike, they’re not using their sticks.”

Plemmons says he chuckled and responded, “I know. And those are called bows.”

Perez feels the biggest difference that Plemmons has made in his life can be seen when he looks at his grades. Since his native language is Spanish, he has had difficulty with the subject of English. Plemmons loves to read and majored in English in college. That’s one reason the two spend a good deal of time reading.

“He has helped me with vocabulary words,” Perez says.

Last year, he went from a failing grade in English to getting the highest exam score of the 20 students in his class at Lake View High School.

“I got so excited!” he says. “I called Mike and thanked him for helping me with the reading.”

Plemmons says he, too, was excited to hear the news and felt that all his work had paid off.

During the school year, Plemmons spends as many as three nights a week helping Perez with his homework.

The difference Plemmons has made in the young boy’s life can be summed up by the words Perez uses to describe him.

“I view him as a friend and a father,” he says. “When I have a problem, he is always there to help me.”

Plemmons was born in Las Vegas. He says he was a “military brat,” moving as a young child every time his father was transferred to a different miltitary base.

Like his father, he decided to join the Air Force.

He enlisted when he was 18 and went to San Antonio for basic training. He was sent to the Azores, a group of islands west of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, where he served as a military police officer from 1969 to 1973 at the refueling stop.

After that, he was stationed in Springfield, Mass. It was there that he started his career as a writer, freelancing for local newspapers. He visited the editor of the Springfield Union and was offered a part-time job while he was still in the service.

After his discharge in 1973, Plemmons moved to Biloxi, Miss., where his father had retired. He worked for various newspapers while attending college.

He majored in history and English, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Alabama in Mobile in 1976. He received a master’s degree in journalism in 1977 from Northwestern University, Evanston.

He worked for the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1977 to 1979, covering labor issues. He met his wife there, and although they divorced in 1985 they’re still close friends, he says.

Plemmons then went from being a newspaper reporter to advertising copywriter–he got burned out, he says. He worked for several agencies in various jobs before starting Plemmons/McMartin, several years ago. Today, he is the company’s creative director.

Running his own company allows Plemmons the freedom to spend time with Perez. And, as many volunteers find, he has received more out of the friendship than he anticipated. For one thing, he is considered part of the Perez family. In fact, Perez says, the refrigerator is stocked with Diet Coke for him.

One of the greatest honors was when Perez’s mother remarried and she asked Plemmons to be a witness.

“I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it,” Plemmons says. “I was deeply honored that she asked me to do that.”

Though Plemmons has long surpassed the one-year commitment that the program requires, he says he will remain Perez’s Big Brother indefinitely.

“I don’t see how this would end,” he says. “We have become friends and we know each other. It’s just a natural thing now.”

For more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago, call 312-427-0637.