SOMERSWORTH — Ask 8-year-old Cameron about the two adults he’s been wrestling with, and he doesn’t skip a beat. “They’re my brother and sister,” he said, as if everyone should know that.
Leah and Paul Crouser beam with love and pride.
When they moved here from Alaska in 2016, the Crousers knew the state was in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic. Leah is a public defender; her husband is a paralegal. She soon learned that most of her clients were in trouble because of their substance use disorders.
Wanting to help, the Crousers contacted Big Brothers Big Sisters of New Hampshire (BBBSNH) to volunteer.
The energetic young couple turned out to be the perfect “Bigs” for bright, busy Cameron, who’d been waiting for eight months for a match.
Cameron’s mom, Kayla Boutin, said she had reached out to the organization because her son had been struggling since his father died of an accidental drug overdose when Cameron was 6.
Boutin said her son didn’t have an easy relationship with his father, who left her when their baby was just a few months old. But she said, “Losing his dad was really, really hard, and unexpected.”
“It’s the people you leave behind that suffer the most,” she said.
Social service organizations that traditionally have helped kids find themselves serving a growing number of children who have lost parents to the opioid epidemic. With scientific data linking those kinds of “adverse childhood experiences” to negative health and mental health outcomes later in life, advocates say it’s critical to offer services and supports to these kids while they’re still young.
Casey Caster, director of grants and communications for BBBSNH, said 35 percent of the children who came into the program over the past year have parents with substance use disorders; 20 percent have a parent in jail or prison. The organization recently received a grant from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that targets serving children affected by opioids.
Cameron was seeing a therapist and was diagnosed with ADHD and autism, Boutin said. She knew his father’s death was affecting him, and she hoped that bringing caring adults into his life would help.
Cameron and his “Bigs” have gone deep sea fishing, bowling and rock climbing; they like cooking together and playing video games. The Crousers go to Cameron’s games; they take him to the park, the gym, the pool. They celebrated their one-year “Big-iversary” in August.
Boutin invites them to dinner and to events at Cameron’s school. “It’s definitely a match made in heaven,” she said. “We love Leah and Paul; we’re like family at this point.”
Her son is happier now, she said, “just to have another outlet and more people he can share a special bond with and connect with.” And she’s seeing the difference in his behavior. “This time last year, Cameron had three to four therapeutic appointments per week,” she said.
Cameron said the best part of being with his “Bigs” is “having fun.”
“Having someone else … who is close and someone I can always look forward to every week, and someone I can play with,” he said.
He punctuates his words by launching himself at Leah, and they fall laughing onto the couch together as Boutin looks on, smiling.
The Crousers say they get at least as much out of the relationship as Cameron does.
Leah Crouser said she sees multi-generations of families in her caseload and has represented kids as young as 7. It’s difficult work.
But she said Cameron lightens her load. “The moment we are all together, it’s easily the best part of my week,” she said. “The stress just melts away.”
Her husband knew one thing when they contacted BBBSNH: “I wanted a brother,” he said.
He’s the second oldest of five children, and the only boy. “Do you know how many times my mom came into my bedroom and said, ‘You’re going to be a big brother!’ I’d ask, ‘Is it a little brother?’ and each time she said no,” he said, grinning.
Boutin said the best thing about the BBBSNH program for Cameron is “having somebody you know you can always depend on, where he didn’t have that with his dad.”
Indeed, Stacy Kramer, CEO of BBBSNH, said the most important thing she asks of Bigs is consistency. “A lot of the kids that are in our program have been let down in one way or another, and things haven’t always been reliable. So we ask the Bigs to just be consistent: show up when you say you’re going to show up.”
The mentoring program has been serving kids as young as 6 in this state for more than 50 years. There’s currently a waiting list; they need more adult volunteers, Kramer said.
You don’t have to be perfect to be a Big, she said. “No capes are needed,” she said. “You don’t have to be a superhero. You just have to be a person that can be consistent to a child.”
Kramer said she has found that it’s always the simple things kids remember: a conversation, a car ride, the adult attending their soccer game. “For me, mentoring is having somebody in your corner,” she said. “Every child deserves somebody in their corner.”
At BBBSNH, she said, “We’re putting somebody in that child’s corner, children that would not normally have one.”
Boutin was a senior in high school with plans to go to nursing school when she found out she was pregnant. “I always knew I wanted to be a mom,” she said. She was 19 when Cameron was born and walked to her high school graduation with him cradled in her arms.
She went on to earn a degree in early childhood education and is currently working as a receptionist for her son’s pediatric therapist so she can be available whenever Cameron needs her. “He depends on me and I’m his advocate,” she said.
She always tells her boy they’re a team: “I’ll always have your back, and I know you’ll have mine.”
Now there are two more people on their team. That’s what friends are for, Leah tells Cameron.
“We’re brother and sister,” he corrects her. “Better than friends.”
“Better than friends,” Leah agrees. “We’re family.”