All that Howie Taylor says he wanted for his fifth birthday was a toy truck.
Instead, he got a baby brother.
Howie, now 52, and his brother Chris were inseparable. They grew up in Kansas City, MO; closer to each other than to any of their other siblings because of that shared birthday. They stayed close even as they settled in different places — Chris in Nebraska, and Howie with his wife Karen in Wesley Chapel, with whom he has two adult daughters. Howie has been a Wesley Chapel resident for the past 20 years.
In 2014, Chris passed away, and Howie sunk into a deep depression. Just a year later, his youngest daughter moved out, widening the sudden empty space in Howie’s life.
All that changed in 2016, when Howie walked into a Dairy Queen and left with a flyer that would bring him a new little brother.
The flyer was for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay.
It led to a connection with a 12-year-old Land O’Lakes boy named Hunter, that turned into more than either expected — Howie and Hunter were recently named the Big Brother and Little Brother of the Year by the Tampa Bay chapter of the nonprofit organization, and have a shot at the national prize, which will be announced later this year.
“It’s kind of a whirlwind right now,” said Howie, who was asked to travel to Tallahassee and speak to legislators about the importance of mentoring. “We’ve got 500 kids sitting out there like Hunter was, just waiting on somebody to step up and offer a few hours of their time.”
The loss of Chris, combined with his daughter’s moving out, left a noticeable void in Howie’s world.
“The house just seemed so much bigger,” says Howie, a web developer.
Hoping for a sense of normalcy and a way to fill his time in a positive way, Howie began seeking out volunteering opportunities. Even before his brother’s death, Howie was no stranger to giving back. He helped found the Gasparilla Krewe of Blackbeard’s Revenge, which has raised nearly $300,000 for local charities since its inception in 2011.
He also worked with the YMCA, Metropolitan Ministries and other organizations before he walked into that Dairy Queen.
Hunter says he was looking for something, too.
“I was spending all my time in my room, playing video games,” says Hunter, who is now 15 and plays multiple percussion instruments in the band at Land O’Lakes High School. “My mom told me I should probably go out and do stuff!”
You Have To Start Somewhere
Soon after discovering that flyer, Howie was sitting in a Land O’Lakes kitchen with Hunter and his family, getting to know his new best friend.
When Howie and Hunter first met, Hunter admits he was introverted, unsure of himself and uncomfortable in his own skin. He talked to other online video game players much more than he ever talked to people in real life.
“You couldn’t drag more than a few words at a time out of him,” says Fred Tanzer, Hunter’s grandfather. “Before Howie, the willingness on his part to open up just wasn’t there.”
Hunter, his older brother and their mother have lived with Fred and his wife, Linda, for the past 12 years. Hunter’s father calls him nightly, but their interaction ends there.
“Hunter hasn’t had a lot of parental anything from his dad,” says Linda. “Howie has just been a ray of light. He’s 100-percent invested, not 98 or 99 percent.”
Adults who volunteer to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters go through a background check and an orientation session, after which matching specialists select a Little Brother or Sister for them. The adults must commit to eight hours a month with their young “siblings.”.
“Both my kids are girls,” Howie says. “I never had a little boy to work under the hood of the car, play in the garage or throw a ball around with. I was hoping for someone not too rambunctious, but I just wanted to help.”
Back in 2016, Howie wanted to expose Hunter to the world outside his room, but not overwhelm him on their first excursion. He thought about his hobby of flying drones and realized it was the perfect compromise.
“We talked about how the dexterity you learn from video games can be good for a lot of things,” Howie says. “Within a few minutes, I handed him the controls and he had the thing out there dancing for me. He was a natural.”
Since that first meeting, the pair have shared a bevy of experiences that Hunter believes he never would have done otherwise, including offshore fishing, regular trips to Busch Gardens, charity walks and other volunteer events, car shows and even appearing together on Howie’s Gasparilla Krewe float the last three years.
“One of my favorite memories was watching him dance and sing at a Pentatonix concert,” says Howie. “I remember him asking if it was okay to do that, because it was his first concert.”
Hunter still talks about their offshore fishing trip; they caught black sea bass and sheepshead, and had a fish fry surrounded by new friends.
One of Howie’s Krewe connections hooked Hunter and two friends from school up with a recent trip to Monster Jam in a limousine.
“We see each other at least three or four times more than the minimum eight hours a month,” said Howie. “I’ve probably seen him three times just this week, and I hope to see him regularly for the rest of my life.”
Hunter’s grandparents consider Howie to be part of their family, which is Jewish. Although Howie isn’t Jewish himself, he has come up with small gifts for Hunter and attended Hanukkah festivities every year at their home.
“Whenever the school band has a concert, Howie and Karen are there,” Linda says. “Birthdays, he’s always at the parties. We feel very blessed that Howie came into his life — and ours.”
Hunter, who says he hopes to turn his gaming talent into a YouTube channel, said he has grown up during his time with Howie, particularly while volunteering, and realizes just how fortunate he is.
“I have a lot more than most people, and I’ve learned to respect others and be confident,” he says.
Howie adds that his friendship with Hunter has helped fill the voids in his own life left by his brother’s passing and his “empty nest” more than he ever imagined it would.
“I’ve always got someone to hang out with,” Howie says. “I heard it said once that when your grown-up kids call you out of the blue, it’s like winning the lottery. I feel the same way when I get a call from Hunter after a long day at work.”
Howie hopes that those considering becoming a Big Brother or Sister will reach out to the organization and join.
“Anybody can do it, and it doesn’t take a lot of time or money,” he says. “It just takes interest, and a little bit of that can make such a huge difference.”
For more information, visit BBBSTampaBay.org, or call (813) 769-3600.