FORT WAYNE – When he was just 3 years old, someone shot and killed his mother in a Tennessee apartment as part of a grisly triple homicide on Valentines Day.
When he was 6, his father abandoned him and his sister, never showing up after telling the children he would be on his way to get them from their grandparents.
They later found his fathers home cleaned out, empty – he had moved away without a word.
As John Roenneburg sees it, his life could have followed one of two paths after those events.
He could have become listless, wayward or maybe even worse.
Instead, hes joining the Indiana Air National Guard, has dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, has goals and, most important, has a direction.
And its all because he met a man named Brad Foster through Big Brothers Big Sisters Northeast Indiana.
It was hard for me to put a lot of trust into a role model, said Roenneburg.
The 18-year-old shared the story of his bond with his Big in front of more than 100 people Tuesday.
Roenneburg spoke as part of a news conference and celebration of Big Brothers Big Sisters Northeast Indianas new facility and headquarters at a building dubbed The Summit, formerly part of Taylor University-Fort Wayne.
Big Brothers Big Sisters officials also announced the donation of $1 million to the local organization by the Edward D. and Ione Auer Foundation, money that will go toward helping children in need.
Some of whom have stories similar to Roenneburgs.
‘Need to be sure’
For Josette Rider, chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters, the gift was almost too good to be true.
She took a call from Katherine Moenter, the Auer Foundations grants director, one evening after work hours a few weeks ago.
When she heard the amount of money the foundation was prepared to give, she broke down in tears.
Later, she wanted to see it in writing – just to be sure.
It was one of those big moments, you know, where you need to be sure and youre like, Maybe he didnt ask me to prom, Rider jokingly said Tuesday.
Rider said the money will help sustain the organization, which is relatively large for the midsized market it serves.
Last year, more than 1,900 children were helped through the local Big Brothers Big Sisters.
This year, the organization is on pace to help 2,000.
Rider profusely thanked Ambassador Associates, which helped provide the organization with its new home at 1005 W. Rudisill Blvd., allowing it to expand from its cramped location on Fairfield Avenue.
And she thanked her staff, which has grown through the years, and the volunteers and leaders of the organization who came before her.
I wouldnt be here if it werent for these guys starting it up, she said, referring to some of the groups early members who attended Tuesdays event.
Rider joined Big Brothers Big Sisters after working her way through college as a caddie.
She said during Tuesdays news conference that her parents at times questioned why she chose to go into the field.
But she said all she had to hear was a story like Roenneburgs to know the decision she made was worth it.
The role model
When he was first matched with a Big Brother at age 9, Roenneburg expected it to be someone in his 20s.
Instead, he met Foster, who was already middle-aged.
But Foster, who could not attend Tuesdays event, was no slouch when it came to physical activity.
Roenneburgs expectations were further turned on end when he found he could barely keep up with his Big Brother when they biked, hiked, canoed and kayaked.
It was really the endless struggle of a little brother trying to pass the Big Brother, Roenneburg said, describing some of the pairs time together.
In the process, Foster became the role model Roenneburg needed.
He was there for everything Roenneburg needed him for – good or bad.
And he was there for the teen when his father, out of the blue, sent him a message through Facebook a decade after hed left, asking for forgiveness.
While Roenneburg has forgiven his father, he has not spoken to him again.
I learned that forgiveness is not acceptance, Roenneburg said.
Without Brad, Im not sure I would have come to that conclusion in my life.
Without Foster, Roenneburg also would not have had a story to share, which he has been doing at local events.
He might not have met Col. David Augustine, the commander of the 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne, who was at one of those events.
He might not have had the chance to tell Augustine of his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.
And who knows whether he would have enlisted in the Indiana Air National Guard at the 122nd in August and be preparing now for basic training in January.
I give it all to Brad, Roenneburg said.
I wouldnt have him if it wasnt for Big Brothers Big Sisters.