Fall is closing in, but the heat is on when Havana meets the Old Pueblo during The BIG Gala, Havana Nights, on Oct. 7 to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson.

The evening will headline Grupo Manteca, featuring Crystal Stark, along with performances by TucSon Casineros Dance Club at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, 7000 N. Resort Drive.

“I am so excited to be partnering with Grupo Manteca. This group is dynamite: The band will knock your socks off. I am always excited to perform with them, especially at this event for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson because it is an organization that has done so much for so many kids and given a great deal to me and my family,” said Stark, who became known during the 2006 season of “American Idol.”

Lesser known is the fact Stark was a “Little” — a youngster in a one-on-one mentorship with an adult “Big” — in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson.

“It was really eye-opening for me because I got to be with people who had different lives than my own and different thoughts and realities than my own,” said Stark, who was matched at 8 years old with a Big Couple, Bob and Marilyn Klepinger. Stark said the trio enjoyed great times together and remained close even after the Klepingers moved to Seattle several years later.

“They flew me up every year to see them and it was the highlight of my year. We went horseback riding and blackberry picking and I did things I would never have otherwise known about or done,” said Stark.

When she was 11, Stark was matched with Michelle Carnes. A local interior designer who now works with Dorado Designs, Carnes is also chair of the upcoming gala.

“She brought me into a world in which she was a business owner who was so creative and so full of ideas, energy and fun. It was so empowering for me as a young girl to be around a woman like Michelle and see, ‘Wow, she has her stuff together.’ To have a role model like that is pretty priceless,” said Stark, who credits her mother for having the foresight to enroll her children in a program that provided professionally supported, one-to-one relationships designed to expand their horizons and help them achieve success.

“My mom was and is a fantastic mom, but she was a single mom who worked a lot. She worked two jobs for a while and couldn’t provide a lot of experiences or time. She knew that the more people my brother and I had in our lives who cared about us, the better,” Stark said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is dedicated to guiding youth ages 6 to 18 who are experiencing a potential of risk to a position that will help them attain their highest potential. Children come to the program through referrals from schools, parents or counselors. Many are from single-parent households and live below the poverty line.

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The program will serve 560 children this year. About 150 children remain on a waiting list to match with Bigs; 75 percent of those are boys.

“On average, boys wait for over a year before they are matched. We have an influx of boys and we always need more male volunteers,” said Veronica Sáiz, associate development director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson.

Those who volunteer as Bigs commit to spending two hours twice monthly with their respective Littles; research has shown that children in the program are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school.

“Statistically the child is left with a very positive impact from meeting twice monthly. Bigs can take their Littles anywhere in the community — we have partnerships with multiple agencies, activities and attractions in the Tucson where the matches can go for free or reduced rates. The focus is on time spent together and not on money,” said Sáiz.


said her relationship with Stark has evolved over the years into an amazing friendship and that Crystal is “truly like a sister. ... I have been there for every milestone and seen her grow up into the beautiful, confident woman and great mom that she is.”

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net