When Big Buddy mentoring manager Matt Anderson-Smith searched the charity’s Waikato volunteers to find the perfect match for teen Kei Ellis-Rose, he struck gold.
Kaleb Whyte, a crown prosecutor in Hamilton, enjoyed the gym like South African-born Kei, along with food, fitness and running. They also had similar holistic approaches to life, since Kaleb loves yoga and Kei chose veganism because of his care for animals.
“My biggest fear going into Big Buddy was that it might be awkward since we didn’t know each other,” admits Kei, 15, who meets with Kaleb most weekends to eat and do activities like bowling or running. “But he was quite talkative and friendly so it was fine and he was nice to hang around.”
Like all Little Buddies, Kei was lacking a stable male role-model or father’s presence in his life. He explains, “I was adopted by my mother, who is American, and my adoptive dad when I was four months old. But eight years before we moved to New Zealand, they got divorced and he stayed in South Africa.”
Kei says for much of his childhood, it was his caring and supportive mother he spent time with. “My father wasn’t really around and once we moved I didn’t see him at all in person. We call every once in a while,” says the teen, who has lived in New Zealand four years. “It’s nice to have a Big Buddy who is a friend and almost like a father figure.”
For Kaleb, 26, the important vetting process to become a Big Buddy took months, made longer because of Covid. “I got matched up with Kei during the Covid lockdown and we met for the first time when it was lifted,” he explains. “I’d applied after seeing a Facebook ad, thinking it’d be an interesting thing to delve into.”
Kaleb also understood the benefits of having someone to look up to as a young man. “I had an informal Big Buddy when I was about 16 and had dropped out of school, at my first job as a grocery assistant working in produce,” the law graduate recalls. “At that point my old man was overseas and my older brother was heading down a pretty bad path. My co-worker, who is six years older than me, became an influential figure and going on to study was prompted by him.”
Kaleb says Kei has lived a very different life to him, yet they are remarkably similar. “We have chats like friends and I give him indirect advice by saying how I dealt with certain situations, rather than telling him what to do about it. My main hope is he continues the path he’s on, which would be rewarding.”
Kei describes his Big Buddy as inspiring. “I’ve told Kaleb things I haven’t been able to tell anyone else and talk to him if I have any guy problems. Being older, he can understand and give me information that might be helpful. He’s fun but smart at the same time.”
While Kaleb is often busy working in court, the pair make it work. “I’ve been helping Kaleb with his house lately, building stuff and chatting while we do that,” Kei says. “A good Big Buddy needs to be comfortable talking about whatever topic is going on and easy going. Kaleb is someone I can count on at any time.”