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Heidi Shaffer, Published July 05 2009

‘Brothers’ forge friendships

When single mom Kim Toll enrolled her son Alex in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, she hoped he would gain a positive male role model.

Alex found that in his “big brother,” Jim Odegaard. Over the past six years, he and Alex have spent countless hours together and formed what Odegaard calls a “lifelong friendship.”

“He’s just part of the family now,” Kim Toll said.

But the friendship has also given Alex a lot more, as his participation in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program has earned him a chance at a college education.

Alex, along with two other area teens, received a full college scholarship through his participation in Big Brothers.

Since 2001, the Annexstad Family Foundation in Owatonna, Minn., has granted nearly 100 scholarships through Big Brothers.

This is the first year any participants from Fargo-Moorhead received the scholarships.

Al and Cathy Annexstad, who started the foundation, both benefited from adult mentors as children.

Alex graduated from Moorhead High School in June and will attend Minnesota State University Moorhead for film studies in the fall.

Kevin Nguyen of Fargo and Nick Nelson of West Fargo also received the Annexstad scholarships and will attend North Dakota State University in the fall.

“I can’t say enough about the scholarship,” said Josh Clarke, Nelson’s big brother. “It’s giving all three of these kids an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise had.”

NDSU, MSUM and Concordia College are three of the 33 schools from across the U.S. that participate in the scholarship program, which covers the full cost of tuition, room and board, and books.

Finding a match

Most of the children participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters are enrolled by a single parent who gets to meet and approve a mentor before he or she is matched with the child.

“We’re looking to match them up with bigs that can offer them mentorship they wouldn’t be getting otherwise,” said Patrick Holm, a case manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Fargo, which serves about 140 families.

Alex was on a waiting list for two years before he was paired with his first big brother because the program is often short of male volunteers, Kim said. Alex’s first two matches didn’t last long because they were college students who moved after graduation.

Alex was matched with Odegaard in 2003 and said his big brothers got increasingly better.

“Jim has been the best,” Alex said.

Kim Toll said her son and Odegaard get along because they are both quiet and reserved but like to have fun together.

“We’re alike in a lot of ways,” Alex said.

Odegaard, who doesn’t have any children of his own, has watched Alex grow over the years, and the activities they did changed depending on Alex’s age. The pair has enjoyed dinners, RedHawks games and concerts together.

Odegaard often helped Alex with homework early on, but he joked it quickly got too difficult to be of much assistance. Later, Odegaard helped Alex learn to drive.

“He’s grown up from a kid to a man,” Odegaard said.

Paying it forward

Though Big Brothers is meant to run through the child’s 18th birthday, Alex and Odegaard continue to meet every couple of weeks even as Alex prepares for college.

Odegaard said it’s a bond he doesn’t see breaking anytime soon.

“It’s been a good experience for me,” Alex said.

After Alex is settled in college, he plans to volunteer as a big brother himself.

“It’s really a win-win situation for everybody,” Kim Toll said. “It’s good for the single moms. It’s good for the little guys.”

“And it’s been good for me,” Odegaard added. “I’ve learned a lot.”

‘Little Brothers’ awarded scholarships

The Annexstad Family Foundation recently awarded full-tuition scholarships to the following “little brothers” who have matured through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo:

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 235-7311