NEWARK, NJ - At a celebration in downtown Newark, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties saluted those who help save lives. 

"This organization is about the power of redefining family when sometimes young people don't have that by birth. We offer consistent, loving, caring adults in their lives," said Carlos Lejnieks, president & CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties. "That's powerful."

Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national non-profit charitable youth mentoring organization, gathered on Friday evening to recognize the local Big Brother and Big Sister of the Year. The nominees at the party, held at the prominent New Jersey law firm Genova Burns, found a myriad of ways to bond with the young people they mentor: sports, music, entrepreneurship, books, movies, homework, even horseback riding. But a common thread tying mentors and mentees together was a sense of mutual benefit and growth. 

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"It's wonderful to hear the stories of the way that all of you have invested in the life of young people. I'd like to talk to you about the personal return on investment. It has been astounding," said Big Brother of the Year William Javetski, who mentors Jhasaad Shiggs, 18, a Newark resident and student at the Marion P. Thomas Charter High School in Newark. "I think when we mentor, we often don't know what we're giving someone. I certainly don't know what positive remembrances and guidance that I've given to Jhasaad, but I know that he's given me an enormous amount already."

"I have become part of Jhasaad's family, and he has strengthened my family tremendously," Javetski said. "We all mentor in different ways, and in this family, what you give is good." 

For Big Sister of the Year Tolu Lanrewaju-Kadri, volunteering to be a mentor hits even closer to home. 

"Being from Newark, we need to see many positive people who can go many places. There are many professions and occupations that these kids never knew existed," said Lanrewaju-Kadri, a Ph.D. student in urban sociology at Rutgers-Newark. She mentors Alana Nickels, 14, a Newark resident and a basketball standout at University High School. "People leaned heavily on me growing up. That's what kept me on the path to be here. When I see her, I see myself. She is me." 

Time is a precious commodity, even more so in our high-speed, digitized society. But all of the mentors at the party in Newark, whether their kids are off in college, are in their prime career years, or are just starting out, said it's time well spent. 

"When I give just a little bit back to someone that was in a situation that wasn't his fault, it gives me a sense of satisfaction," said Daniel Goldmeier, who mentors Quadere Clifton, 18, of Jersey City. "I enjoy giving back. Being able to give back to someone, it gives back to me." 

"Everything time I see him, it's a bonus. It doesn't fell like work or an obligation. It's seeing a friend," said Andrew Regenstreich, who makes the trip from Westchester County, New York to mentor Nasir Addison, 14, of Newark. "Nasir is not a stranger to me. Your life becomes a training mission for your mentee. We're all connected somehow." 

Lejnieks has heard it all before from people who wonder if they have the time to be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Lejnieks' answer: now hear this. 

"It's four hours a month, for a one-year commitment. That's an hour a week. That's all it takes, You can do it. Anyone can do it," Lejnieks said. "This is an opportunity for a volunteer to invest in the life of a child just down the street. You can change a life, and you're not in it alone. I have faith. We all do."

To contact Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties about donating, or about becoming a mentor, go to www.bigsandkids.org

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