How important was it for Joel Ruffin to become a “Big Brother” to Jersey City teen Jaleel Perry?
Ruffin, a vice president at Goldman Sachs and Jersey City resident, found out three months into his mentor relationship with the 15-year-old when Jaleel’s older brother, Altarik, was killed in December after leaving a party with friends.
“The key thing is to listen, to be a presence, listening to what Jaleel is saying,” said Ruffin on Tuesday, after he received the “Big Brother of the Year” award from the Big Brothers/Big Sisters State Association of New Jersey at a Tuesday ceremony at Newark’s City Hall.
“He’s just a cool person to be around.” – Jaleel Perry
Ruffin was honored along with Newark resident Angela Rodriguez, who received the “Big Sister of the Year” award.
Ruffin, who signed up with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties in September, said the death of Jaleel’s brother helped further the bond between the two as he opened up to Ruffin. Jaleel, a shy, bespectacled young man finishing up eighth grade at Public School 16, said Ruffin would take him out to various places as well as talk to him about his late brother’s death.
The young teen also commended Ruffin for encouraging him to pursue his interests in music, math and computers.
“He meets with my teachers, checks up on me about my homework and we both play the saxophone,” Jaleel Perry said. “He’s just a cool person to be around.”
Jaleel’s mother, Dorothy Perry, who accompanied her son and Ruffin to the Newark event, had nothing but praise for Ruffin.
“He’s been a great mentor to my son, and a great role model,” Perry said. “And both my family and Joel’s family have grown close.”
Becoming a mentor
Big Brothers and Big Sisters (BBBS), an organization started in 1904 in New York City, forms matches between children ages 6 through 18 with mentors in one-to-one relationships. The mentor and child spend one hour a week, four hours a month pursuing various activities with the goal of forming a friendship.
In New Jersey, there are nine BBBS agencies serving 20 of its 21 counties. The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties currently serve over 700 youth.
One of them is Jaleel Perry, who got involved in the BBBS program in September. He said he “wasn’t sure” why he got involved, but thought it was a good idea. His mother, Dorothy, who has seven children including Jaleel also wasn’t sure why he needed a Big Brother.
“I told him he already had a big brother but he somehow convinced me that he needed one,” Dorothy Perry said. “He said this was different.”
Ruffin didn’t expect the relationship to start right away since he saw the two had “different viewpoints,” but over time they bonded over their shared interests and the fact that Ruffin had two sons of his own.
Admiring the mentor relationship between Ruffin and young Jaleel, Carlos Lejnieks, CEO and President of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties, said, “It is depth and it is simplicity. Joel is a beautiful person and Jaleel has seen some extreme things, and the relationship is unconditional.”
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.