By Keysha Drexel
When Mike Vest of Inverness joined others earlier this month to announce Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham’s expansion into Shelby County, the Shelby County commissioner spoke from firsthand experience about the organization’s positive impact on children throughout the Birmingham metro area.
And as the organization celebrates its 40th year with the “Big Round Up” volunteer recruitment campaign through Nov. 22, Vest is hoping more people will sign up to make a difference in the lives of children.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Vest said. “There are so many kids out there who are just like I was and really need that guidance from a Big Brother or Big Sister.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham is an affiliate of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which has more than 400 chapters worldwide. Directed by chief executive officer Sue S. Johnson, the local organization has been serving the children of central Alabama for 40 years and is a United Way agency.
To mark the milestone anniversary, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham is hoping to recruit “40 Bigs in 40 Days” by matching 40 adult volunteers to students in its community-based and school-based programs.
In the BBBS community-based program, matches are made based on interests, expectation and geographic location. Volunteers spend three to five hours every other week with the child and talk on the phone. Activities can range from going to the park, movies, museums or to just hanging out.
In the BBBS school-based program, match meetings are limited to the school grounds and take place once a week for one hour. Volunteers may be high school students or adult volunteers. Activities for the school-based program are strategically geared toward the social development of the child to increase academic ability, one-on-one relationships, critical thinking and decision-making skills.
Both programs are designed to do just what Vest said they did for him when his mother signed him up for the program in the late 1970s.
Vest’s parents divorced in 1975 when he was 8 years old, leaving his mother to take care of Vest and his older brother by herself.
The family lived in the Powderly and Green Acres area of Birmingham. Vest’s mother found a job at Royal Cleaners in Bessemer to support herself and her children.
“She was working all the time just to put a roof over our heads and food on the table,” Vest said. “My mother worked six days a week on most weeks, and she was just never at home. My older brother had fallen in with the wrong crowd and dropped out of high school. Drugs were very prevalent in our neighborhood, and people were dying from overdosing and drug deals gone bad. I was an at-risk youth.”
His mother signed him up for Big Brothers Big Sisters when he was “a long-haired 11-year-old kid with a wad of gum” in his cheek, Vest said, and he was matched with a young firefighter named Mark Griffin.
“I remember it just like it was yesterday. Mark and his soon-to-be wife, Louise, walked in the house and said they were going to take me to a UAB baseball game,” he said.
Griffin, a Hoover firefighter who now lives in Anniston, said he, too, will never forget the day he met Vest and became his Big Brother.
“I have never seen a kid eat so much. He probably had one of everything at the ballpark that day,” Griffin said, laughing. “But I was so glad that I had a chance to steer him down the right path because when we met, he was headed in the wrong direction.”
Griffin got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters after he attended a Braves game with a co-worker and his Little Brother.
“I’d always loved kids and felt like I needed to do something to help kids. I was single at the time and thought I probably wouldn’t have the time once I got married and had my own kids,” he said.
Vest and Griffin said they clicked right away and soon were spending a lot of time together.
“He would come by every Sunday and take me to church. We went to ballgames, we went everywhere. Mark took me to my first trip to the beach in Ft. Walton. He really opened up the world to me in a lot of ways,” Vest said.
Griffin said he saw right away that Vest was a talented athlete and so tried to encourage him to get involved with sports.
“I figured sports would be a way to save him. I coached his church baseball teams and took him to baseball and football and basketball games. I always told him that if he worked really hard, he might be able to earn a sports scholarship and go to college,” Griffin said.
Vest said he took Griffin’s advice to heart and poured himself into being the best athlete he could be.
“It saved my life so many times. I would kind of start to join along with some of what the kids in my neighborhood were doing, and then I’d remember what Mark said, and I’d run down to the baseball field or the gym and practice,” he said.
The Boys and Girls Club also played an important role in Vest’s life as a young teen, he said.
“It offered me and other kids a place to go after school if our parents were working and not home. It gave us something to do besides get out on the streets and get in trouble,” Vest said.
Vest said Griffin became a major fixture in his life over the next few years. Griffin loaned Vest his car–a blue Firebird–so he would have a nice car for his first date.
“He was always a mentor to me and treated me just like I was his family,” Vest said.
When Vest got to high school, he played quarterback on the football team and set his sights on earning a football scholarship to attend college.
“God blessed him with a lot of talent, and I was hoping maybe that he’d get a chance to play football in college, so it was great when he won a scholarship to play at Samford,” Griffin said.
Vest played quarterback at Samford University and then moved to Texas to pursue his other passion–music.
Vest signed a recording contract and made a living as a country singer for several years before moving back to Alabama to start a family. He was elected to the Shelby County Commission in 2012 and is the executive director of the Governor’s Commission on Physical Fitness.
“I knew he would be successful,” Griffin said. “But I never imagined that Mike would have the kind of success he has in so many things. I’m really proud of him.”
Throughout it all, Vest and Griffin stayed in touch, getting together at holidays or to go to big games.
“You are loyal to the people who have believed in you along the way. Mark truly is like my brother, and I feel really lucky to have him in my life,” Vest said.
The two men still meet for coffee after Griffin gets off from work as a firefighter at Hoover’s Greystone fire station.
“We can always pick right back up where we left off, and he’s like my family,” Griffin said.
And Griffin, Vest said, is a part of his family in another way.
Vest’s youngest son, Griffin, is named after the Big Brother who had such a huge impact on his life.
“When he told me that I could be somebody, it made such a big difference in my life that cannot be underestimated,” Vest said.
That’s why Vest said he was determined to expand Big Brothers Big Sisters to Shelby County.
“You think that Shelby County is this really affluent place where kids don’t need programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, but that’s just not true,” he said. “There are plenty of kids out there who need that positive adult in their lives.”
About four months ago, Vest enlisted the help of Shelby County Community Services Manager Reggie Holloway and Coordinator of Community Services Shelli Thomason to help bring Big Brothers Big Sisters to Shelby County. Next, an advisory committee was formed with representatives from school, government and business, including EBSCO Industries and Alabama Power.
“I always hoped that someday I could, in some small way, give back to Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I’m so thankful for all the support for this,” Vest said.
As Griffin prepares to retire after 33 years as a firefighter, he said he knows he and Vest will always stay in touch.
“We’ll always be a part of each other’s lives. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
And Vest said he will continue to champion the program that introduced him to Griffin and helped him get where he is today.
“I’m a product (of Big Brothers Big Sisters) and a proud product, and I will go to my grave being a campaigner (for the organization),” he said.
For more information on how to volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Birmingham, visit www.bbbsbhm.org or call 939-5590.