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Don't underestimate the power of a great big brother: Margaret Bernstein

Margaret Bernstein, The Plain Dealer
Originally published here
on June 23, 2013 at 6:00 AM, updated June 23, 2013 at 6:08 AM
At age 44, Derek Jackson is a grown-up poster child for Big Brothers Big Sisters and proud of it.

Next week at the mentoring agency's national conference in Denver, he'll take the stage to talk about how his life unfolded after he got a big brother. His powerful story proves that Big Brothers Big Sisters is onto something smart as it launches a national campaign, "ReuniteNow," to reconnect its former bigs and littles.

"I'm the son of a man who went to every prison in the state of California. A huge heroin dealer," is how he starts out. "My mother came from an orphanage and lived in the ghetto. I wasn't supposed to make it.

"The early influences I had weren't positive ones. My father taught me how to sell weed in the seventh grade. He gave me weed bags, and told me what to do so I could make extra money."

But during that same year, he came face to face with another influence, one that eventually won out over his dad's example. Derek got matched with a mentor through Catholic Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles.

It was 1980, and Derek thought he'd died and gone to heaven when he got assigned a dashing big brother who drove a red convertible and had more girlfriends than he knew what to do with.

The first bit of tutelage he received at his mentor's knee was dating advice -- or, as Derek calls it, "the Alan Bernstein technique with women" -- prompting us both to crack up in knowing laughter.

Oh yes, I'm the right person to tell this story. I know this relationship very well. That's because Derek's mentor was my older brother, Alan. Then a USC business school graduate with a good-paying sales job, Alan had been schooled by our parents and his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, in the importance of giving back.

"I wanted to be him," Derek reflected. "I adored him. He always knew what to say. I saw that as a gift. He was charming, debonair, and loved the finer things in life."

Actually, my three siblings and I were lucky enough to have the finest thing life can offer as we grew up in Los Angeles -- a stable, worry-free childhood.

Derek's life didn't look anything like ours. His mother died of cancer when he entered high school. His dad wasn't present much, so he moved to Atlanta with a relative, which didn't go well at all. "I would call Alan constantly. It was arguably one of the worst periods of my life," he recalled.

Derek came back to L.A. but "I was out of control with all that I had been through," he said. He got booted out of a private high school and ended up in UCLA's neuropsychiatric unit for months, where Alan visited him regularly. "He walked that dog with me," Derek said.

It's true. It was a dog of a life that Derek had been handed.

And Alan knew better than to disappear. "It wasn't what he was expecting," Derek said. "But he went through it and stood right by me."

The psychiatric care helped Derek pull things together. He graduated from high school and went to Shaw University in North Carolina. He showed his appreciation for Alan by pledging Kappa Alpha Psi -- a proud moment for both.

So, whatever happened to that chunky kid in the baseball uniform that Alan used to bring home on Saturdays?

He moved to New York, got a toehold in the music industry and slowly climbed the ladder, learning every facet. A few years ago, he opened an advertising agency that now matches major corporations like Pepsico with superstars like Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne.

That little brother ended up becoming a powerhouse.

His oversized work ethic is what propelled him to his success. And to hear him tell it, he came by that trait from my brother, who is now a sales manager, a husband and a dad.

Derek still remembers the intense sit-down sessions when Alan explained the good, bad and ugly parts of life and taught him to problem-solve his way through the rough spots. "There's nothing that scares me, nothing that challenges me to the point where it's overwhelming," Derek said, with swagger in his voice.

He's still a kid to me, but I see my brother's handprint all over him. He's inherited both his get-it-done side and the life-of-the-party side.

Alan and Derek never fell out of touch. The strength of their relationship is what compelled Big Brothers Big Sisters to make them both featured speakers at the Denver conference.

I know that watching them together will be powerful. It's what inspired me to become a big sister when I moved to Cleveland, which in turn transformed me into the repetitive and relentless cheerleader for mentoring that I am today.

Alan and Derek will speak on behalf of the new ReuniteNow campaign, which urges alumni "to come back and be part of this movement that is so greatly needed," said Charles Pierson, Big Brothers Big Sisters national chief.

Bringing former bigs and littles back together -- this is a potent power source that should have been bottled years ago.

Nationally, there are nearly 100,000 kids on the agency's waiting list, Pierson said. It just makes sense to cultivate alumni whose lives were profoundly touched years ago, especially mentees who may have gone on to career success thanks in part to their big brothers or sisters. They're a potential army of passionate volunteers and donors, all with their own story to tell.

Were you ever involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters? Go online to for help reconnecting with your big or little, or to get more information.

In 2000, Margaret Bernstein was named National Big Sister of the Year by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

To reach Margaret Bernstein:, 216-999-4876 Previous columns online:

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