Dzhamal Sarvalov, 23, of Liberty Twp., was matched with Mikhail Stepp, 11, of Hamilton, last year through the Butler County Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. They attended the organization’s holiday party last year. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Living through coronavirus: Big Brother finds new ways to mentor Hamilton 11-year-old

“That’s all there was,” the 23-year-old said.

But his family immigrated to the United States 15 years ago when Sarvalov was 8. He attended school in South Bend, Ind., then after the family moved to Liberty Twp., he graduated from Lakota East High School in 2016.

Now, like the Sarvalov men before him, he finds himself planting seeds, but he’s cultivating a more important crop.

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Last year Sarvalov was matched with Mikhail Stepp, 11, of Hamilton, as part of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Butler County.

The timing of the connection couldn’t have been better for Mikhail, said his mother, Victoria Stepp, 46. Mikhail’s older brother, Tilford Hammock, 21, who was born with genetic disorders, died in July 2019. That left Mikhail with just an older sister, Cheyenne Hammock, 23.

“It was like he was an only child,” his mother said.

Then Mikhail, a sixth-grader at Riverview School, was introduced to Sarvalov.

“When they’re together, Mikhail gets excited and seems happy,” his mother said.

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Those social interactions have been limited because of the coronavirus. Instead of meeting in person, Sarvalov and his Little Brother communicate on social media and recently participated in a virtual scavenger hunt.

Becky Perkins, vice president of marketing and outreach for Butler County’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters, said the agency has encouraged its clients to continue social interactions.

“It’s all about relationships and offering that support and encouragement,” she said. “They can still have their conversations about life.”

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Perkins said it has been interesting watching the relationship between Sarvalov and Mikhail grow since they were matched last year. He serves as Mikhail’s role model and “champion,” she said.

He has helped fill a void at the agency, Perkins said. She said 150 children in Butler County are waiting to be matched, and 90 of them, or 60 percent, are boys.

Sarvalov, who lives in Liberty Twp. with his parents and brother, said he never figured to be a Big Brother at this stage of his life. While at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Sarvalov said a friend talked about the Big Brothers program. It sounded intriguing so Sarvalov applied.

Then he was matched with Mikhail.

Even though one is 23, the other is 11, Sarvalov said when they are in public, strangers consider them brothers because they look similar.

“Just two normal people spending time together,” Sarvalov said with a laugh.

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Before the coronavirus, the two attended a Cincinnati Reds and Cincinnati Bengals game, went to the movies, bowled, hiked, played cards. They try to spend time together twice a month and Sarvalov lets Mikhail pick the activity.

What they do doesn’t matter. The time together does.

“Anyone can make a difference,” Sarvalov said. “You don’t have to do drastic things to change one person’s life. Just be there for someone. It’s all about spending quality time with people.”

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