Big Brother honored for service

Zolan Kanno-Youngs said he benefited enormously from the Big Brother program while growing up in Cambridge, Mass., recalling how his mentor constantly encouraged him to be the best he could be during their weekly visits together.

So when Kanno-Youngs saw the opportunity to become a Big Brother himself as a first-year student at Northeastern, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I was a ‘Little’ myself, so when I saw they were recruiting at the community service fair freshman year, I thought it would be a great thing to get involved with,” said Kanno-Youngs, a Ujima Scholar and third-year journalism major pursuing minors in African-American studies and communication studies. “It’s an opportunity to get guidance from somebody that’s older than you who’s not in your immediate family. It’s not someone you see every day, but for those few hours, all their focus is on you.”

Kanno-Youngs has been matched with 10-year-old Dorchester resident Izaeyah for the last 18 months; earlier this month, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay named Kanno-Youngs one of six “Bigs of the Year.” The award was presented at a star-studded gala attended by local luminaries such as former Red Sox player Jason Varitek. Kanno-Youngs, one of 19 Northeastern students who serve as “Bigs,” was the youngest to be honored.

Izaeyah’s mother said her son’s relationship with his Big Brother has inspired him to reach new heights.

“I see Izaeyah thinking more about who he should be as he grows from a little boy to a man,” she said in a statement released by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay. “I also see in Izaeyah that he is proud of himself when Zolan tells him that he can do anything. I really don’t think Zolan knows how much he has influenced Izaeyah. I know I can never repay Zolan for taking the time out of his life to give my son things I could not give him.”

For as much as Kanno-Youngs has given to Izaeyah, the experience has been just as rewarding to him. He said it’s provided an opportunity to engage with the community and give back to an organization that helped define him growing up. He has taken Izaeyah to play basketball, shared meals with him at the dining hall; and brought him to the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute, where earlier this year the two spoke about their experience in the Big Brothers program.

“We’re both African-American and I think it’s important for him to see people who look like us at Northeastern,” Kanno-Youngs said. “It makes the idea of college become more realistic and helps it seem like the kind of goal that really is achievable.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay says its organization is in “great need” of more volunteers like Kanno-Youngs, with more than 1,000 boys and girls in need of mentors.

Kanno-Youngs said participating in the program has served as an incredible complement to his rigorous academic studies and allowed him to reflect on the things that lie beyond campus life.

“I feel like once you’re in college, you can get sucked into your own work, especially when you’re living on campus and have so much to do on your own,” he said. “So not only is this a great escape, it’s also an opportunity to realize just how much is happening in the community and the world and how you can make a huge impact on all of that.”