Malachi Duran, 13, and Alex Fuller were matched in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona STARS Program in 2015. The program is for children who have a family member in prison. (Wochit)

Alex Fuller, 48, swipes his thumb across the screen of his cellphone, looking through the many reminders he’s set on his calendar.

“Malachi starts the eighth grade in 22 days,” he says as he swivels the phone to show the 13-year-old standing next to him at a Dave & Busters.

Malachi Duran shakes his head and smiles. “Ahhh, it’s too soon.”

Fuller laughs and nudges the boy. “It’s going to be awesome. What else happens on that day?”

“My dad gets out.”

“That’s right, your dad gets out.”

Malachi and Fuller are part of a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona program that matches children of incarcerated parents with quality mentors.

Malachi is from south Phoenix, where he lives with his mother, stepfather and four younger siblings. He joined the program and was matched with Fuller in 2015.

“I am very thankful to my mom for signing me up,” he says.

The program is for youths who, without proper guidance, could end up making the same mistakes as a parent in prison, said Brandi Devlin, senior director of marketing for the local Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.

“Malachi lives in a community and comes from a family that has had to deal with incarceration, so his adult role models have made the wrong choices,” Devlin said.

The presence of a male role model such as Fuller, she said, shows him there are other options in life.

A mother’s hopes

Anya Duran-Garcia sits at the dining room table inside her home in south Phoenix. The air conditioning isn’t strong enough to cool the entire house, so a fan runs at full speed in the living room. The door and windows stand open.

She smiles as she talks about the program, called STARS, and its impact on her son. For starters, his grade-point average has gone from 1.0 to a 3.6.

“I want my babies to be better. Better than I was. … I know I wasn’t that great of a role model,” she says, looking toward Malachi, who is seated on the couch.

She admits the lifestyle she and his father were living a few years ago was bad for Malachi. Duran-Garcia says they both had a problem with drugs, mostly meth, and her addiction had a hold on her life.

In November, Duran-Garcia will have been sober for a year. She got married in March and is working for the American Printhouse, a wholesale screen printer.

“I wanted him to see that there is more to the world than just what we were doing,” she says.

Malachi trusts Fuller, and for his mother, that is really important.

“He is very stable,” Duran-Garcia says, noting that Fuller is always there when he says he will be.

That consistency assures her that Fuller is not going to let her son down.

‘Playing the match game’

Big Brothers Big Sisters has provided one-on-one mentoring in the Phoenix area since 1955. Last year, it served 1,553 youths, nearly 20 percent of whom have an incarnated parent.

Devlin said the group makes 30 to 50 matches every month for children ages 6-18. Location, common interests and goals are all factors.

“It’s kind of like playing the match game,” Devlin said. “When we do see two people with similar interests, we host a match meeting. If it’s successful, they plan their first outing.”

The program has 900 to 1,000 active matches at any given time, but it does face challenges.

The group has more children waiting for matches on the central, south and west sides of Phoenix than it has volunteers. In the East Valley, it has more volunteers than children in need.

“It’s an interesting dynamic, because we don’t want our volunteer to drive more than 15 to 20 minutes to meet their Little,” Devlin said.

This is one reason why it can take one to three years for children in the program to be successfully matched with a Big.

Another challenge: Potential mentors often see it as a “monstrous commitment,” when it’s really not, Fuller said.

Volunteers do need to commit at least one year to the program, Devlin said, and be able to meet with their Little at least two times a month.

To become a Big involves an online application, orientation and an in-person interview, as well as background and reference checks.

It mostly takes a willingness to be a part of a kid’s life, Fuller said.

“You really unplug from your own life when you’re with your Little,” he added. “It’s a nice break from the busyness of your own life.”


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‘Chosen family’

Fuller, who is unmarried with no children, visits Malachi at least three times a month and often texts him. He feels it’s reassuring for Malachi to know that he’s always interested in his life.

For the past two years, they’ve had a lot of fun, and Malachi has grown a lot, Fuller said.

His 3.6 GPA is a particular point of pride. But they’ve never done any academic work together, Fuller said.

“This is solely just having somebody in his life that is consistent and persistent.”

When they got matched, Fuller said, they set three goals: Do your homework. Be a gentleman. Always make good choices.

“I’m not trying to be a parent, and I’m not intentionally trying to do something other than letting him know that somebody cares,” he said.

On a YMCA family camping trip last year in Prescott, Fuller was mistaken for Malachi’s dad. Fuller explained that they’re “chosen family.”

“When we say we’re chosen family, it’s really meaningful,” Fuller said, noting that Bigs and Littles can ask to be re-paired.

“He’s (my) chosen father,” Malachi said. “He’s been this shining moment in my life.

“I love him.”

Reconnecting a father and son

One day last year, Fuller asked Malachi and his little brother, Israel, if they wanted to see their dad again. Both said yes.

Fuller contacted the Arizona Department of Corrections and asked if he, a non-family member, could take the kids to visit their dad. Their father is held at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, about an hour outside of Phoenix.

Fuller completed all the paperwork, did a background check and got an OK from Malachi’s mom.

At first, “I didn’t tell Malachi I was trying to,” he said. Once it was organized, he brought it up. “If he had said, ‘I didn’t want to,’ we wouldn’t have.”

Malachi saw his father, Thomas Levario, for the first time in four years on Christmas Eve in 2016.

“During the meeting, I felt like a facilitator, kind of reconnecting this family,” Fuller said.

Levario was extremely thankful, he added.

Prior to that visitation, Malachi would occasionally write his father, but their correspondence wasn’t consistent. Being able to see and talk to him was powerful.

Malachi has visited his father three times since. He hopes to keep the relationship they’ve developed alive when he’s released in August.

And he feels that Fuller will play an important role in that.

“It’s going to be exciting having a biological dad that is there for me and then having a chosen father come and see me,” he said. “It’s very important to me.”

How to help

Volunteer requirements:

  • Commit to meeting two to fourtimes a month for at least a year.
  • Must have lived in the Phoenix area for a minimum of 3 months.
  • Must have transportation, a valid Arizona driver’s license and proof of auto insurance.
  • Must be able to pass a criminal background and motor-vehicle check.
  • Must be able to have regular phone calls with Big Brother Big Sister staffer.

To learn about being a mentor, contact Anne Campaigne, community relations coordinator, at [email protected] or 602-799-0634.

Donate or find more information: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona.


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