Tony Smith knows firsthand how it feels to long for a father figure to stand by his side.
Before his mom married his stepfather, Smith, Alabama Power Gadsden Business manager, was raised in a single-parent home. “As a kid, I can remember looking at my mother as she struggled to raise two boys. Although she was instrumental in my development, I missed out on having a consistent, day-to-day male figure in my life.”
Smith has stepped up to make sure another boy doesn’t miss out on that father-son relationship. Through the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program, since 2018 he has been a friend and mentor to Antwon Benson, a sixth-grader at Litchfield Middle School in Gadsden.
“I really had to pray about it before I decided to become a mentor,” Smith said. “I asked God to put me with the right child – one in whose life I could make a difference. He answered my prayer with Antwon.”
In recognition of their successful relationship, Smith and Benson were recently named the 2020 Male Match of the Year by BBBS of Alabama. The two had already been selected as the Male Match of the Year by their local agency, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Alabama (BBBSNEAL), before winning this statewide honor.
BBBS of Alabama’s mission is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth. It consists of six agencies statewide that match children and teens facing adversity with volunteer mentors and provides ongoing support for mentors, youths and parents/guardians throughout the life of the match.
“Tony is a wonderful big brother and is truly dedicated to his little brother, Antwon,” said Sue Johnson, president of BBBS of Alabama. “Tony is so deserving of this honor for his service and dedication to changing a young child’s life for the better, forever!”
Keisha Rice, case manager for BBBSNEAL, said she has seen an unbreakable bond blossom between Smith and his little brother.
“Tony has stood out to me for the amount of time, effort and sacrifice that he is willing to give to others and especially to Antwon,” said Rice, who nominated him and Benson for the Male Match of the Year award. “He’s good at thinking outside the box and exposing Antwon to opportunities that will make him strive to do his best.”
Benson said his “Big” means everything to him.
“Having a Big has changed my life,” Benson said. “My big brother, Tony, is special to me because I can talk to him about anything. I can be having a bad day at home or at school, and he is there for me. I have learned a lot from my big brother, Tony – things like studying hard to make good grades at school and learning how to cope with different things at school and at home.”
Smith and his little brother have spent hours hanging out at the movies, skating rink and baseball parks.
Since the pandemic began, Smith said his time with Benson has been more limited. But he has managed to keep in touch through weekly phone calls and dropping lunch off at the family’s front door.
“COVID-19 played a big part in my life,” said Benson, noting that staying at home and away from school, family and friends was hard. “If I had not been able to talk to my big brother, Tony, during COVID-19, I would have been very sad and lonely.”
In addition to his role as a big brother, Smith served for five years on the BBBSNEAL board and is a past president.
Smith has taken part in the agency’s Bowl for Kids’ Sake and Golf for Kids’ Sake fundraisers, and recruited volunteers and sponsors for these and other fundraising events. He has been featured in two BBBSNEAL recruitment commercials to help promote the agency’s mission and motivate others to become “Bigs.”
“We’re really proud of Tony,” said Valerie Pugliese, CEO of BBBSNEAL. “Tony is a great big brother and has been a positive influence on Antwon. He is also very active in raising funds and bringing in volunteers for our agency.”
As winners of the state award, Smith and Benson are moving on to compete for the national Big and Little Brothers of the Year. The winners will be announced at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America national conference in June.
“I’m humbled to be recognized as a Big,” said Smith. “I believe it’s always important to give back. We need that more than ever. When I was growing up, we had neighbors and relatives who helped us. But now you don’t have a lot of that, so we need programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters to help make up for that loss.”