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Little and big: 2 friends, 1 family

Ike Anyachonkeya, left, and Steve Montgomery met when Ike was 7. JEFF WILLHELM - STAFF PHOTO
Ike Anyachonkeya, left, and Steve Montgomery met when Ike was 7. JEFF WILLHELM - STAFF PHOTO jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

The boy was quiet, even standoffish, when Steve Montgomery first met him 15 years ago.

Steve and 7-year-old Ikechukwu Anyachonkeya, Ike for short, had been matched by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Charlotte.

Ike is black, the youngest child of Nigerian parents whose father had left the family. Steve is white. On that day, he was 34 and unmarried, aching to fill an emptiness by helping a child.

He'd planned to take Ike to the zoo in Asheboro. Yet when he arrived, there was Ike and his sister and two brothers, sitting together, hands politely in laps.

"I could tell they all wanted to go," Steve said. "I said, 'Ike, if you want your brothers and sister to go, that's fine with me.' He gave me this killer smile. I took all of them."

That was the start: big-hearted Steve and wide-eyed Ike. From there, the two built a relationship that went far beyond Steve's commitment as a "Big" - a mentor - even after Steve married and had his own children.

Saturday, it reached a milestone, when Ike crossed the stage at UNC Charlotte's Barnhardt Student Activity Center to collect a bachelor's degree in mass communication. Steve was there, his heart pride-filled.

"We've come a long way together, Ike and me," said Steve, who owned a school photography company he'd started in college in Kansas.

Ike is 22 now, full of confidence and clear-eyed appreciation for his chances in life.

Always at the heart is Steve.

"We have love for each other," Ike said. "Steve's is unconditional, and at first I didn't understand that because he wasn't family. He is now. ... He's my father figure."

An unusual match

At first, Ike wasn't so sure.

Here was this big white guy, with a bushy mustache and cherry-red 4Runner, showing up at his door to take him on their first outing.

After Ike's parents divorced when Ike was 6 and his father moved to Atlanta, his mother, Angela, thought her children needed good influences and submitted their names to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Ike was the first to be matched.

Greg Hood at BBBS put them together.

"Ike was this great kid and Steve had this authentic passion to help a child who needed help," Hood said. "The two together have been an unbeatable combination."

The trip to Asheboro that first day was like opening a brave new world for Ike.

"My parents were foreigners and they didn't want us to go out of our boundaries, so we had rarely strayed far from home," he said. "Then Steve came into our lives. He seemed nice enough. But I was very apprehensive."

A new school

Ike said little for months.

True to his commitment, Steve kept coming around. He took Ike fishing, or to golf lessons. He got them floor seats at an NBA Charlotte Hornets game.

A year into their relationship, Steve married his girlfriend, Eileen Philips. When Steve introduced Ike to Eileen, she was instantly smitten. Ike was, too.

They took him to the beach - even after they started having children, twins Madeline and Maxwell (now 6) and another daughter, 5-year-old Eleanor.

The summer before his sixth grade, Ike's mother, Angela, a nurse's assistant at Carolinas Medical Center, told Steve she'd heard that Charlotte Latin had scholarships for promising African-American students.

Steve met with administrators there, and soon Ike had a full ride to Latin.

"I wasn't sure about this at first," Ike said. "I didn't want to leave my friends (at Crown Point Elementary in Matthews). But Steve and my mother persuaded me that it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down."

At Latin, Ike stuck out as one of the few black students.

He made quick friends, but it took awhile to feel a part of. "I was the only African-American in my grade until I got to high school," he said. "I felt no one could understand me or relate to me. I came from humble beginnings and most of the families there were well-off.

"It was such a hassle to get me there."

For a year, Steve gave him a ride to and from school.

More than anything, Ike wanted to play high school basketball, but didn't make the team as a freshman or sophomore. He contemplated leaving. He thought he'd mix better at Butler High, and he could ride the bus.

Steve and his mother talked him out of it. Steve helped him buy a car.

Finally, Ike grew into Latin. He got a job on the school newspaper as the staff cartoonist. And his junior year, he made the basketball team.

Before practice one day, Ike left school and "devoured" a pint of Ben & Jerry's cookie dough ice cream.

At practice, he paid. "It was not a smart decision," he said. "My stomach was hurting."

During drills, his vision blurred, and he grew wobbly. His coaches thought he was goofing around, as he often did. A teammate held his hands out to keep him from falling. But Ike collapsed, nearly dying from a massive brain aneurysm.

‘God got my attention’

The month he spent in Carolinas Medical Center's neuro-intensive care, the Latin school community rallied around Ike and his family.

The school held an all-classes assembly on Ike's behalf. Students visited him daily in the hospital and sent huge cards on poster boards with signatures from hundreds of students. Parents coordinated meals for his family.

His coaches called every day for an "Ike Report."

He remembers little about the collapse, but felt the love.

"I had no choice but to feel love," he said. "My team came. Parents came day after day. They were all crying. It put everything into perspective - I was taking so much for granted and God got my attention through the whole ordeal. He awakened me and I realized how grateful I was for the opportunities I had and all the people I had around me."

The college path

Steve kept working to open doors for Ike. He got him a job at Harris Teeter. One summer, he and Eileen sent Ike to a camp in Vermont - his first time away from home. When it came time to find a college, Steve talked to administrators at Wingate and Gardner-Webb universities and persuaded them to offer Ike a free ride.

But one day, Ike pulled Steve aside.

"He said, 'Steve, you've done so much for me. You've opened so many doors and paved a few paths and made things easy for me,'" Steve recalled. "Then he flashed that killer smile and said, 'I want to do this one on my own.'

"I was crushed, but I've never been prouder of Ike."

Ike went to UNC Pembroke for two years. Steve missed him like he'd miss any family member. On the way to the beach, Steve and his family stopped in Pembroke so his children could see "Uncle Ike" and bounce on his dorm-room bed.

Two years ago, he transferred to UNCC to be closer to his family and the Montgomerys.

Today, as Ike becomes a college graduate, he feels a part of Steve's family. He calls or texts Steve four to five times a week. Eileen is battling cancer, and he calls weekly to check up on her.

Steve, too, is beloved by Ike's family.

"My mom loves Steve; she's so grateful for the impact he's had not only on my life, but my siblings' too," Ike said. "I feel like Steve's family is my family. Eileen's sickness is heavy on my heart, but I feel that God will remove it.

"I am so lucky to have both my families."

Steve says he's the lucky one.

When he found Ike, he was consumed with chasing money, raising bees and flying airplanes. Their union taught him much about the value of mentoring.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has a huge waiting list - which Steve says it shouldn't.

"We can fix so much of what ails our culture through embracing those mentoring relationships," he said. "I assure you if Ike has gotten anything out of our friendship, I have received so much more."

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