All friendships start with an initial meeting, a point when you can either decide to see that person again or let the connection go. For some, even friendships born out of unusual circumstances blossom and grow into lasting relationships; for others, time takes its toll and people grow apart.
But for four men, two 40-year-old friendships grew from an unlikely start: a random pairing of boys and men through the Big Brothers of Rhode Island.
Don Robbins, former vice president and general counsel of Hasbro, Inc., and his biological brother, Arthur Robbins of Robbins Properties, Inc., both served as Big Brothers starting in the 1950s. Today, the pair is still friends with their respective Little Brothers, and both have formed lifelong bonds that have helped to shape their lives.
Don said he was looking for something to get involved in outside of his studies at law school in the 1950s, but his options were limited.
“In the ’50s, there wasn’t too much,” he said. So when he saw a Boston University article on the Big Brothers program, his interest was piqued. Don decided to go in to interview with the Jewish Big Brothers of Boston, but at the time, at age 21, he was technically too young to participate.
“They were very strict,” he said. “They didn’t take anyone younger than 25.”
But Don was persistent and qualified for the job, so the organization made an exception. His first Little Brother was a boy named Michael that Don remembers fondly. Today, Michael lives in Seattle and still keeps in touch with Don.
“He’s 65 and just celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary,” said Don with a hint of sentimentality. So many years have passed since the 21-year-old Don first met the troubled young Michael.
When Don moved to Rhode Island with his law degree in 1964, he became a part of the Big Brothers of Rhode Island. Don remembers the day he met his next Little Brother, Steve Levitt – it was Feb. 13, 1964.
“He was a pure joy,” said Don.
But Levitt doesn’t remember being that sweet from the start.
“I remember saying to my mother, why?” said Levitt.
Levitt’s father died when he was 5, and his mother wanted him to have a positive male role model in his life.
The pair hit it off, and Don took Levitt to sporting events and to race his radio control car. Levitt was 12 and Don was 29; today Levitt is 60 and Don is almost 77.
“It’s important on a number of fronts,” said Levitt of his relationship with his Big Brother. Levitt said Don helped him with things like his college essay and important social skills. Don even helped him with his first job, setting Levitt up on the assembly line of Hasbro Toys, where Don was the senior vice president.
“It was horrible,” said Levitt with a laugh. “I learned I didn’t want to do that.”
When Levitt got married, he asked Don to be his best man.
“One of my responsibilities was to give you a stag party,” said Don.
“A bachelor party,” corrected Levitt with a laugh.
Levitt remembers calling Don as soon as his children were born, too.
“I called my mother first and then Don,” he said.
Levitt said Don was inspirational in many ways, and without realizing it, Levitt began to follow in Don’s footsteps. He went on to get his college education, became involved in his synagogue and bought a vacation home near Don’s.
“Don never tells you what to do, he leads by example. I tried to follow in your footsteps,” said Levitt to his Big Brother.
“I’m going to cry,” said Don.
Both men have been thoroughly changed by the Big Brother program and the lasting bond they’ve formed.
“It’s been wonderful,” said Don. “I don’t have any closer friends than my Little Brothers.”
For the Robbins, being a Big Brother runs in the family. Don’s older brother, Arthur, joined the organization after Don was named Big Brother of the Year in 1968. The week after the awards dinner, Arthur signed up. He was soon paired with 9-year-old Mark DeFarias.
“Knowing what my brother had done, I was looking forward to doing the same,” said Arthur.
So 44 years ago, he commenced his role as Big Brother with DeFarias. DeFarias also was fatherless; his father died just a week after he was born. Together, Arthur and DeFarias did things like go bowling or catch a sporting event.
DeFarias vividly remembers selling candy for school with Arthur, who helped to make deals with local businesses.
“He showed me management skills at a very young age,” said DeFarias. “For every case you sold, you got a $2 gift certificate to Benny’s. That’s how I got Christmas presents for my family.”
DeFarias said Arthur was his first male role model.
“I can think back on it now,” said DeFarias. “Arthur is … the definition of a man.”
DeFarias is grateful to Arthur’s children for letting him be a part of their family.
“He’s been a Big Brother,” said DeFarias. “He hasn’t replaced my father, but he inspired me and gives me positive reinforcement.”
For Arthur, the relationship has been just as fulfilling.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever undertaken in my life,” said Arthur. Arthur praised DeFarias and his family, which includes his wife and four sons.
“To appreciate the way Mark and his wife have nurtured four strapping young men is amazing,” he said. “How wonderful it has been for me to see how they’ve developed.”
DeFarias now lives in Fall River and works as a contractor.
Both DeFarias and Levitt agree: they may not be 10 anymore, but they’re still just as active with their Big Brothers as they were all those years ago.
“I don’t think this is the norm,” said Big Brothers of Rhode Island Executive Director Steve Kass, with a smile. “Almost 50 percent of matches don’t last a year.”
Big Brothers started 105 years ago in Pennsylvania, and the Rhode Island chapter was started in 1952. Big Brothers of Rhode Island is currently celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Kass, a former radio personality, explained that his father, Geroge Katz, served as the first director of Big Brothers of Rhode Island. He said watching the relationships formed between Big and Little Brothers is heartwarming, and means so much to those who participate in the program.
“These kids are so lonely,” he said. Today, Kass says there is an “epidemic” of young boys in need of a positive male role model in their lives. They currently have 400 children waiting to be matched, but don’t have enough Big Brothers to do so.
“Eighty to 85 percent of inner city youths are born to single moms,” said Kass, who said so many young boys lack a father figure in their lives. “This is an only program that can have an impact on that.”
For more information on the program, or to become involved, visit www.bigbrothersri.org. Big Brothers only have to spare a small amount of their time, and must be willing to submit to an interview process and background check.