MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — It’s a normal Tuesday afternoon and Marines across Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., are getting off work and heading home to their families or to the barracks. Lance Cpl. Alex Cantave, however, is pulling into the parking lot of North Terrace Elementary School on base. He walks into the cafeteria of the school and sits down at the lunch table sized for the elementary students. As the students are dismissed, Cantave hears the patter of little feet. His “Little Brother” Kyle comes running into the room, exerting enthusiasm and excitement. Cantave can’t help but smile as he prepares himself for an hour of keeping up with the energetic 7-year-old.
Cantave is part of a Big Brothers Big Sisters program called Operation Bigs, a military mentoring program. Operation Bigs began in 2004 to pair Camp Pendleton active duty or former Marines with children whose parent is deployed in support of Marine Corps operations. Volunteers spend an hour a week with their “Little” at the child’s school or a community center.
Tina Rose, the marketing director for Big Brothers Big Sisters San Diego, said the goal of the program is for a friendship to develop between the “Big” and the “Little.” In a time when the child’s world has been turned upside down by a parent’s deployment, the “Big” is someone that the child can rely on for fun and companionship.
“The Big just gives that invaluable gift of friendship,” Rose said. “They share time together playing sports, or a board game, or just talking about what that child is concerned about at that moment. It really makes a difference to that child. It’s the highlight of their week.”
Since the beginning of the program in San Diego County, it has expanded to 42 military institutions across the country. Cantave, a finance technician with 1st Marine Logistics Group, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, is one of 23 active duty Marine volunteers in the program.
Cantave was assigned as a Big Brother to second grader Kyle Hamill in 2010. Although Cantave was new to the program, the Hamill family was not. Beth Hamill, wife of Staff Sgt. Ian S. Hamill, Legal Chief with 3rd Low Altitude Aerial Defense Battalion, first heard about Operation Bigs in 2009 from a friend who had enrolled her child in the program. Hamill said her ten-year-old son, Nathan, showed little interest in after-school activities. Hamill hoped enrolling him in Operation Bigs might be good for him.
In the program, Nathan was paired with retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Marco Justiniano, an equal opportunity advisor for Headquarters and Support Battalion, Camp Pendleton. Initially, Nathan was shy and nervous around his new Big Brother, but those feelings didn’t last long, Justiniano said.
“After the first couple of visits with each other, little by little Nathan started opening up and doing things outside of what he was used to,” Justiniano said. “At the same time, I started getting an understanding of what he was into and what was motivating him in his life. It was kind of a give and take at first. Overall, it was a good experience.”
Hamill was so happy with the program that she enrolled her younger son Kyle once he was old enough. Kyle was a different child than Nathan, enjoying sports and high-energy activities. His match with 24-year-old Cantave suited him perfectly.
“Alex [Cantave] is like a big kid,” Hamill said. “They just clicked. They have so much fun playing together and having that time together.”
Cantave agrees and said he gets a kick out of Kyle.
“That kid is insane,” Cantave said. “He makes me laugh.”
Although Kyle’s experience with his “Big” has been different than Nathan’s, the program proved to be just as valuable for both boys when their dad deployed for seven months in 2010.
““It was nice to have that male role model, who was there every week,” Hamill said. “Nathan and Kyle always looked forward to it.”
The sense of consistency makes Operation Bigs so valuable for military children, said Rose. A study conducted by the National Military Family Association in 2009 found that military children experienced difficulty in social and emotional functioning as a result of deployed parents. Children involved in Operation Bigs, however, showed improvement in self-esteem, school progress and interactions with peers and teachers.
The impact of the program is not just on the “Littles.” Both Justiniano and Cantave agree that they got something out of the program as Marines.
“Eventually I’ll want to have kids and, eventually I’m going to be deployed; and there will be someone out there to guide my kids and put them on the right track,” Cantave said.
The program is just another example of the brotherhood within the Marine Corps. While a Marine is deployed, his brothers and sisters are taking care of things back home for him.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to go out and not only give to the outside community, but if you’re a military member, to give within the bounds of the base,” said Justiniano. “You never know when your turn’s going to come up and when you might have to leave your little ones behind. It’s nice to know there’s someone wearing the same uniform as you, fighting the good fight, supporting the United States and taking care of the home front. I encourage anybody out there to participate and contribute to the greater good for the United States Marine Corps and the Bigs Program.”
Although Justiniano is retired from the Marine Corps now, he remains involved in Nathan’s life as a civilian. Cantave said he will continue to spend time with Kyle every Tuesday and has plans to make friends with a second Little in the future.
Rose said that Operation Bigs hopes to expand its impact over the next several years. She said there are many children eagerly awaiting matches and six elementary schools waiting to be added to the program. •