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Big Brothers put kids on right path ; Program's founder changed lives of countless children

Wayne Jurgielewicz was just 11 years old and already on a path to self-destruction when a stranger named Robert F. Moss came into his life.

"We lived in South Buffalo. I was skipping school and doing some drinking," Jurgielewicz recalled. "I was definitely on the wrong path. My mother called the Big Brothers Big Sisters program to see if they had someone who would mentor me. I guess she thought it would do me some good."

They sent Moss, and although it took years, his mentoring turned Jurgielewicz's life around.

"Without Bob, I'd probably be on my third marriage today and spending all my time drinking in every bar in South Buffalo," Jurgielewicz said.

Jurgielewicz is just one of thousands of people in Erie County who benefited from Moss' years of work with the county's Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, friends say.

Moss started the local chapter as a 19-year-old student at the University at Buffalo, looking for a way to help a few kids from troubled families.

That was in 1971, and since then the Erie County chapter has matched up 7,000 kids from poor or fractured families with caring adult mentors.

One of those 7,000 is Jurgielewicz, who with Moss' help and encouragement, graduated from high school and became a good, dependable man.

Today, Jurgielewicz is a successful business executive who lives and works near Kansas City, Kan.

A New York City native who relocated to Western New York, Moss died unexpectedly in August at age 58. The Hamburg resident is fondly remembered by people who worked with him in the not-for-profit organization.

A big man with a booming voice who also worked as a teacher in the Buffalo Schools, Moss is remembered by friends as a larger-than-life figure who devoted his life to helping kids.

"Bob grew up in the Bronx, and every Saturday, his father used to take Bob, his brother Steve and some other kids on outings. They'd go to museums, the Bronx Zoo or Yankees games," said Moss' wife, Hedwig "Dee" Moss.

"Bob always wanted all kids to have what he had -- that amazing feeling that someone cares enough about you to do things with you."

Aside from his wife and two children, nothing meant more to Ross than the kids who were helped by Big Brothers Big Sisters, according to David T. Hore, a close friend of Moss who succeeded him as chief executive officer of the chapter.

"Bob used to tell me, 'These kids need us,' " Hore recalled. "He said these were the kids who have nobody else to look out for them. If not us, who will do it?"

Big Brothers Big Sisters provides mentors to young people from the ages of 6 to 16.

Mentors try to steer youngsters away from trouble and encourage them to work hard in school. They also take them on outings to sports events, cultural activities or other events that they might not usually have the chance to enjoy.

The volunteer mentors must be at least 18 years of age and undergo an extensive background check, Hore said.

"Seventy-five percent of the kids we service live at or below the poverty level, and 85 percent are from single-parent families, usually with no father around to serve as a male role model," Hore said.

But Moss had a positive way of referring to such young people. He called them people "on the brink of success."

Studies have shown that kids from poor families who have mentors are far less likely than others to skip school, drink alcohol, use drugs or hit another individual, according to the organization.

Volunteers usually spend a few hours a week with a child or teenager.

Typically, a mentor relationship lasts at least six months, but it is not unusual to form friendships that last a lifetime.

That's what happened between Moss and Jurgielewicz. They were close friends who spoke several times a week. When Jurgielewicz got married 20 years ago, Moss was his best man.

Many times over the years, Jurgielewicz has marveled at the huge impact that Moss -- a total stranger who just wanted to help kids -- had on his life.

"As a kid, I'd go over to his house and play Atari video games, or we'd just sit and watch a Bills game together," Jurgielewicz said.

"Bob would help me with my homework. When I'd do crazy things and get into trouble, he'd go to my teacher, my guidance counselor, or sometimes, down to the police station to get me back on the right path. And he did the same thing for a lot of other kids, too. He was completely unselfish."

During his darkest moments, Moss would tell him: "Wayne, you can do anything you want to do, if you just put your mind to it."

At some point in their relationship, Moss went far beyond being a mentor to the troubled kid from South Buffalo.

"He became my family," Jurgielewicz said. "As far as I'm concerned, he became my actual big brother. He really did."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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