Greg Malone was about 9 years old when he met Mike McConnell through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. It was the mid-1970s and Malone's father was out of the picture.
Without McConnell, he'd be a much different person today.
"Mike was a lot more than a friend," Malone said. "A lot of the choices I made in my life were because of the relationship I had with Mike. I was being able to make the decisions because I didn't want to let Mike down. You want that person to be proud of you just like you want your parents to be proud of you."
The bond Malone shared with McConnell lasts to this day, their friendship more like family, Malone said. McConnell was there to listen and help him make tough decisions, like choosing to join the military to pay for college. He even played the role of Malone's best man at his wedding in 1989.
For four decades now, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Missoula has been helping kids like Malone, getting them "through the minefields of adolescence," as CEO Danette Rector puts it. On Friday, the organization will hold its 40th anniversary banquet, commemorating its many years supporting Missoula's children.
"We want to show them there's somebody out there that cares for them," Rector said. "The volunteer is truly spending time with them because they like them."
A stable and healthy relationship is important for a child's development, Rector said. The organization matches children in need of a mentor with volunteers from the community. The program served more than 350 children last year - and this year has more than 80 children on a waiting list.
But its beginnings were humble.
In 1969, a University of Montana sociology class focused on children in the community, specifically young boys who needed a guiding voice in their lives. Their assignment, the professor said, was to determine if the community needed a Big Brothers mentoring program.
A few months later, they presented their findings to a gathering of local officials, business people and other interested parties. Among the audience that day was Larry Riley, then in his 20s and a recent graduate from the University of Montana's law school.
Inspired by what he heard, Riley picked up where the university students left off. He put together a nonprofit organization and a board of directors, even though the group had no official home. Though they really didn't know what they were doing, Riley said, they managed to put together five matches that first year. The feat seemed remarkable, he thought.
"We couldn't have been happier or more proud if we'd built the Taj Mahal," Riley said. "Here are five young people who are better off than they were before."
Riley's drive to implement a Missoula Big Brothers program can be traced to his upbringing, he said. Growing up, strong role models - specifically, his high school English teacher - surrounded him.
That teacher, Carrie Williams, was supportive and friendly and Riley continued to stay in contact with her long after graduating from Roundup High School. Williams, who died in 1970, was an inspiration for Riley. Losing Williams made him strive to have a positive effect on young lives, just as she'd had on his.
"We're all a product of who we've been influenced by," he said. "Forty years later, she's still an influence in my life. I think to some extent that's what immortality means. If she's influenced my life and I in turn influence someone's life, then holy smokes, Carrie Williams is living on for a long, long time."
Riley's ambitions are still alive in the program today, which added Big Sisters in around 1975. According to a study done for BBBS of America, "Littles" are more confident in themselves and their schoolwork and less likely to skip school or begin abusing drugs and alcohol.
The key to that success lies in the program's match support system, Rector said, which helps set up a strong relationship between volunteer and child by pairing similar people. Match support also is a way for BBBS to ensure the safety of all children involved, which is the organization's top priority, she said.
Good matching is key to building a long-term positive relationship, said Dustin Swalla, a BBBS match support specialist. After that, all a mentor really needs to do is be there and have fun, he said.
"That's the biggest thing, just making sure they're still having fun," Swalla said. "The best parts of the job are getting to see the creative ways they find to hang out.
"The match support is also almost like ongoing training," he said. "It's just one more person they feel like they can talk to and we'll listen. They can talk with us or bounce ideas off of us."
That dedication to matchmaking has helped BBBS prosper in Missoula, serving more than 5,000 children so far. The best thing about a long-standing program, Rector said, is being able to see some Littles grow up and give back to the program - something that's happened several times in her 32 years at BBBS.
"It can come full circle," she said. "When you've worked in this program as long as I have, you see adults that were in the program; they were Littles and are now Bigs. It's a domino effect."
A year after his marriage, Malone came back to BBBS, this time as a volunteer. He and his wife joined the Couples Program where the two paired with Little Brother Aaron. Malone said he saw it as a way to help another generation of youth deal with their own tough times.
"The reason I really wanted to become a Big was because of the positive relationship I had as a Little," said Malone, now 45. "I'm a finance guy. Somebody took the time to invest in me so it moved forward. Now, that investment continues to get rolled over."
Malone said he never expected the amount of joy he'd get from being a mentor. While his goal was only to be there for a child in the same way McConnell was there for him, he found the experience just as rewarding for the adult as for the child.
"It's really difficult to put into words," Malone said. "You start to realize you don't do much, but it's the accumulation of things. You just develop a relationship and you are very positively impacted by that (mentoring) side of the relationship, too."
"They really become part of your family," he said. "(Aaron) was there when my kids were born. The way the program builds that extended family is really cool. When he graduated from high school, it was one of the proudest moments of my life."
Today, Malone still keeps in contact with Aaron, but has moved on to his newest venture with the program. He's in his third year serving as treasurer on the BBBS of Missoula board of directors.
Larry Riley is also returning to BBBS this year to help the group raise $175,000 to cover the mortgage on its log home office on Russell Street. Retiring the debt would allow the organization to hire another match specialist, he said, leading to more possible matches.
"If we pay that mortgage off, that translates to another 60 to 80 Littles that can be matched," Riley said.
Friday's banquet, starting at 6 p.m., is another way BBBS is raising money. The celebration kicks off at the Hilton Garden Inn at 3720 N. Reserve St. with a silent auction followed by dinner and prizes. Entertainment includes local artist David Wilson and the Sentinel High School Spartanaires.
Tickets are $70 per guest and include dinner, complimentary drink and a raffle ticket. Cocktail attire is suggested and a few tickets are still available. Reservations can be made by calling Big Brothers Big Sisters of Missoula at 721-2380.
AJ Mazzolini is a junior studying print journalism at the University of Montana who worked as an intern at the Missoulian.