By John Tanner, Big Brother and General Manager

When I was asked if I wanted to share my story about being a Big Brother, I was surprised, honored and excited. I immediately went home and thought how I should approach this.

The more I thought, the more in depth and complicated it became. Something was wrong … I realized that I was focused on me, and that is where the story had to change. You see, the story isn’t about me, the story is about two people on a journey through life and how they ended up together. That’s the story I’m going to share with you.

But before I do, let me try to define what I think a ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Big Sister’ really is. Is it a father or mother figure? Is it a friend, a mentor … or just another guidance counselor?

It could have many meanings or sentiments. For me, being a Big Brother means a second chance. A second chance for me, and a second chance for my little. I have wanted to be part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for more than 10 years. I’ve looked into it, read every piece of literature available and Googled everything, but I kept finding excuses to postpone it.

“I’m too busy … work is hectic … I have no time … I’m overweight … I have my own problems … they won’t like me.”

Anything to keep from committing.

I have always been emotional, and had a soft spot towards children in unfortunate or uncontrolled circumstances. It is a humanistic nature to protect our young, and at times, as humans we tend to make mistakes, sometimes unforgettable and forever impressionable mistakes.

I would often wonder, “Why are these children being put into such unfortunate situations? They are our future, they deserve better.”

Then I remembered my own childhood. My parents divorced, my mother married three times and my father was constantly in and out of my life. I was abused and there was no one to help, yet I had to endure.

When I was 17, I was on my own living in a trailer in upstate New York during winter with no heat. I didn’t have anybody to help me, offer guidance or even simply just listen. I had to be tough. I fought my way through everything, and made choices that probably weren’t the best choices at the time.

I had to build an emotional wall around me, so that no one could hurt me again. This caused me to have trust issues, be the loudest in the room, always first in everything I do and sadly, to put my career before my family. Unfortunately, that emotional wall shut down the real John Tanner. I only allowed a few people into my circle of trust and was always on guard.

It wasn’t until 26 years later that I finally broke down the wall. When I had my first interview with Innisfree Hotels, I was ready. I wanted in. I came fully dressed with jacket, tie – and, yes, briefcase.

As I was waiting at the Holiday Inn outside the meeting room, I heard a booming voice shout, “Tell Tanner to take his tie off!” (I thought there must be another Tanner.) Then Jill Miller came running to me and told me to take my tie off. So there I was standing outside the meeting room in front of exiting General Managers, undressing and stuffing my $87 Vineyard Tie into my briefcase mumbling under my breath, “Great, just great.”  What a way to start the interview. I met with Mike Nixon, Jason Nicholson, George Coolbaugh, Gabe Dicianni and Gwen Vickers. Talk about an interview process. I must have done something right, because here I am.

When I started working with Innisfree Hotels, the culture of deep love and warmth embraced me. It was normal and required to hug and say, “I see you, and I love you.”

My deepest regards to my mentor George Coolbaugh for, in a way, she was  my “BIG.”  Or, as we say at Innisfree, the answer – or a step forward to my “growing edge.” The first time she visited my hotel, she approached me for a hug and I stuck my hand out for a handshake. I saw the surprise in her reaction and I felt bad.

Almost three years and many Genesis meetings later, I’m the most huggable person I know, and I can’t even begin to tell you what an emotional rush it was to be accepted, to be appreciated, and simply loved.  

This is the reason why I love Innisfree. I enjoyed volunteering at the Dixon School of the Arts carnival, I enjoy sending money for simple items like coats to stay warm, I enjoy spreading mulch for our garden, I enjoy sending food to those in need. (Food, right? I’m ashamed to say I have eaten more than my share over my life, and the fact that kids these days don’t have enough is disheartening.)

To Julian and Kim Mc Queen, I thank you for your commitment, and I thank you for Innisfree.

This is the reason why I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters.

My first LITTLE was a young boy who struggled with reading and making friends. We met at school once a week. In less than two months, he was reading and his grades improved. I was inspired when the principal stated that she didn’t know that he could even read. Really, a basic form of communication. I was overwhelmed with joy to have taught another person not only how to read, but how to interact positively with his peers and grow his friendships. Now, he wants to continue into the summer.

I wanted more. Thus, I asked for another LITTLE!

We all have this life we live … this journey that we are on. All of us, no matter what background we come from have hurdles we need to conquer. My LITTLE, well, his journey thus far has been beyond my comprehension. His struggles are real. He was bounced from foster care homes until he was finally adopted by his aunt, a single mom who by the gracious nature of her heart took him in and endeavored to provide a positive family atmosphere, that many of us take as a given.

This was it, my opportunity to make a difference. When I met my LITTLE, all he wanted was to go fishing, he even had names for his fishing poles. Really, that’s it … fishing! Most kids want iPhones, Play Stations or Xboxes. No problem man, we’re going fishing! I went out and bought my first fishing license in 20 years and he is going to remind me what “natural fun is.” Then I find out he loves movies and especially the Marvel movies. Now I know this was a divine intervention, since I’m a movieholic.

Many of us remember growing up in a less complicated time. School was simple (no common core) and dodgeball was awesome. We had no cell phones, laptops, Facebook, Snapchat and the endless distractions that our youth endure in this digital age. Today, kids are having babies … bullying is elevated with social media. Children are committing suicide and posting fights online. It is becoming a social norm for them. They need our guidance and our direction now, more than ever.

One definition of a community is “a feeling of fellowship with others, because of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

To me, community means putting others before yourself. Taking pride in where you live. Looking after each other and even just saying ‘hello’ when we are walking down the street. Simply smiling at others.

It seems simple, right? I am afraid not – not in these times. It means being different, standing out to do what’s right. To be a friend, to be a neighbor, to be Innisfree is to to be a BIG. I’m proud to be a BIG and I’m proud to have two new friends in my life.