Making a difference

Honored Big Brother/Big Sister have truly impacted lives.

John Kokula of Sartell had a revelation in 2007. His teenage son, Alex, had been in a bad car accident in May of that year and there were people that didn’t think he would survive, according to Kokula. “But he made it!”     During the long months of recovery, Kokula said he helped Alex relearn things like the name for a cat and how to spell the word. He was feeling grateful for his son’s progress and he began thinking of ways in which he could “give back.” “One afternoon while Alex was at therapy,”  said Kokula, “I was pumping gas and there, on the pump, I saw the name for Big Brothers Big Sisters and their phone number. I thought—it’s a sign! So I called them up and said, ‘I’m here to help.’” In November 2007, Kokula was matched with Little Brother Morcelli Kombo of St. Cloud. They’ve been together 4 ½ years.  “It was rough-going the first six months,” said Kolula. “Morcelli had had a Big Brother who left, and he kept asking me if I was going to leave him too. I told him no.” During the past four years, the two of them have spent time going to places including baseball games, the science museum, the library and car shows. Kombo has some cognitive delays and Kokula said his mission was to help teach him things. He added that he has more patience today, at age 70, than he had when he was 50 years old. “Morcelli likes to cook. It’s a big deal for him to spend the weekend. He likes to cook and eat and watch movies and go for a ride in the car.” (Kokula explained that when his son graduated from college, he bought himself a present– a mustang convertible.) Kombo likes meeting Kokula’s friends and hanging out with Alex, who made a full recovery from the car accident, went on to graduate from St. Thomas and who now lives in California. The year 2012 has been quite a year for both Big and Little Brother. In February, Kokula was named the Minnesota Big Brother of the Year and this spring, Kombo graduated from Apollo High School. At the awards banquet where Kokula accepted his Big Brother of the Year award, Kombo gave a speech. “He was just beaming,” Kokula said. “Morcelli ended the speech by saying ‘I hope I can be a Big Brother some day.’ I almost cried.” When asked how Alex reacted to his father’s award, Kokula said that he’s told him on numerous occasions how proud he is of him. Chelsea Roering, a case manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters in St. Cloud, said that Kokula did a lot of little things that made a difference in the life of Kombo. “ He was aware of Morcelli’s capabilities and he chose the activities that they did together with a purpose. He taught him life skills. They would cook, iron, and watch educational movies together and he even introduced him to being an usher at his church to help him become more confident in social situations.” Roering said that the process of being named Big Brother of the Year started with Morcelli and his mother’s nomination of Kokula. Morcelli wrote, “John cares about me and others around him. He has taught me to be respectful, good mannered and grateful for everything I have…I am very grateful and lucky to have him as a big brother.” Staff and board members also had a role in his being chosen Central Minnesota’s Big Brother of the Year, which was followed by him winning the state honor. Kokula, the chief financial officer at DeZurik Co., a valve manufacturer in Sartell, says he is not doing this for the recognition or to be a celebrity. Awards are nice but it’s the relationship that counts. This year has also been eventful for Big Sister Shari Wahlin of St. Cloud and her Little Sister, Kirsten Skjonsby. The two, who have been matched for four years, recently returned from Washington D.C. where Wahlin was honored as the National Big Sister of the Year. When asked how it felt to receive such an award, Wahlin said, “I was incredibly amazed and honored. I wasn’t expecting it. But I also felt grateful because it brought recognition to the work we do at Big Brothers Big Sisters.” Wahlin works as the developmental director for the Central Minnesota agency, but her employment was not a consideration in her win. Wahlin credits her Little Sister for starting the whole nomination process which resulted in her winning both the local and Minnesota awards before winning National Big Sister of the Year.  Skjonsby was very excited about Wahlin’s award, telling her repeatedly, “You deserve it.” Skjonsby’s mother had health problems from the time Kirsten was five years old. She often missed school in order to care for her mother. Wahlin was at her Little Sister’s side during some of the more difficult times including when her mother had a stroke in 2010 and when she died in 2011. Skjonsby said that her Big Sister is her superhero. “Shari is always there for me. She actually stuck around and has been with me through the worst two years of my life and has kept me happy. She hasn’t left my side once which makes me trust her.” Jackie Johnson, Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota, said that Wahlin and Skjonsby have gone through so much together and they are the best of friends. “Shari has been a rock for her and is one person Kirsten knows she can always rely on,” she explained. Kirsten graduated from Foley High School last spring and is already taking summer classes at SCSU and is making the adjustment to college life. “Kirsten is interested in the medical field and has a personal interest in helping people,” Wahlin said, “but she is also artistic and creative.” In June, Wahlin and Skjonsby went to the Big Brothers Big Sisters National Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. Skjonsby had never flown before and was nervous but the week turned out to be a great experience. “At the big gala event, we spoke and shared out story,” said Wahlin. “ Afterward, people came up to Kirsten to tell her how impressed they were with her and how she faced so many obstacles.” Meeting with and having photos taken with President Obama in the Oval Office was a “big event” according to Wahlin. They also met Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and got tours of the White House and the Capitol. They saw the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian and Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was shot. Other attractions on their Must See list will have to wait until a later time. “The week was wonderful,” said Wahlin, “and to be able to experience it together was great.”

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