After a career with the Public School Retirement System and raising two daughters with his wife, Jeff Russler became a United Way volunteer and met Lee Knernschield, program director of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Jefferson City.
He was inspired.
"Her story just showed me a population that I wasn't really familiar with," he said. "Going to Catholic school, you don't really run into minorities and the underprivileged."
That led him to volunteer with BBBS, eventually becoming a "big." The national organization matches adults ("bigs") with children ("littles") who need a mentor and friend. Often, but not always, the children have one parent in their household.
"I was scared to death," he acknowledged. "I was going into the unknown."
But he said it turned out to be a wonderful experience, and further caused him to realize the importance of mentoring underprivileged youths. Since then, he's been a "big" for several other youths.
"Sometimes you come home from your meeting, and you hug your kids a little harder," he said. "I didn't know people lived off convenience store food, that people didn't eat, didn't have food in the house or know proper manners, or to clean up a mess when they made it. It taught me there are all kinds of folks out there. If they are open to mentoring, I think it's a wonderful opportunity for both sides."
In the community-based program, "bigs" pick up their "littles" from home and do something with them once a week. It can be shopping, putt-putt golf or just playing catch. With the school-based program, "bigs" interact with "littles" in the schools. This program has been limited during the past 1 years due to the pandemic, Russler said.
Currently, about 50 "bigs" are paired with "littles" in the community-based program, and there's always a need for more "bigs," Russler said.
"We try to provide consistency for our 'littles,'" he said. "Sometimes, there's not a lot of that in their lives. It can be pretty chaotic, with their families trying to get from day one to day two to day three."
After serving on the BBBS Advisory Board for several years, Russler is chairman of the board this year. The board helps to set some policies, but it mostly serves as fundraisers and cheerleaders for the organization.
The organization will have a chili cookoff/cornhole tournament Oct. 7 at the fairgrounds. The chili cookoff starts at 5 p.m., and the cornhole tournament starts at 6 p.m.
Knernschield said Russler has been in the organization for nearly a decade and sets a great example for other volunteers.
"Jeff is a volunteer who lives the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters," she said. "He freely gives his expertise to guiding our efforts, mentors young men who are in need of a positive influence, and is always asking what else he can do to help. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Jefferson City is so fortunate to have Jeff involved."
When Russler isn't working with BBBS, he's often volunteering at his church, Immaculate Conception, or camping and traveling with his wife, Jackie. They'll celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary next month.
Last week, he talked up BBBS at an event held by the United Way, which provides more than 50 percent of their budget.
"I feel very strongly about and I want to do whatever I can to help it continue and thrive and be ready when we go back in the schools," he said. "What we do is important, and I want to make sure we continue to do that."