More than 40,000 children in the greater Salt Lake area are growing up in single-parent households. In Salt Lake County alone, there are 25,000 children who do not live with both parents.

Many of these children enjoy intimate, loving relationships with both parents. Unfortunately, as many or more don't have one or the other parent around much to serve as a role model, counselor, and friend.Utah's Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America affiliate is trying to meet some of the needs of these children, but the number of children who would like to have and would benefit from a "big" far exceed the number of adults who have volunteered to participate in the program.

A "big," as the adult participant is called, provides an added - and important - dimension in a "little's" life. He or she is someone outside of the immediate family who makes a commitment of time and caring to a child who needs extra attention and devotion.

More than 400 children from 5 to 16 are served under the program each year. (A child can stay in the program until he is 18, but the agency doesn't provide matches for 17- and 18-year-olds.) More than 180 children are on a waiting list hoping for a match. According to estimates, at least 12,000 children in Salt Lake County alone could benefit from a "big-little" relationship.

The commitment is not one that can be made casually.

"We are looking for stable, mature adults over age 20 who are interested in contributing to the welfare and future of children in single-parent homes in our community," Scotti Davis, who directs the program, told me.

Each "big" must agree to give at least three to five hours a week for a minimum of one year. The one-year stipulation is important so the children "understand that there's a real commitment," Davis said, "and they're not just going to be in and out of their lives."

I've talked to a lot of "bigs" and they all agree on one thing: It's not always easy, but it is always rewarding. "Bigs" talk about the fun they have with their "littles," and the incredible feeling they get when they realize they can have an impact on and be a part of a young individual's life.

"I don't think we ever have any idea of the impact we can have on people until much later," Davis said. But talking to children who have graduated from the program - some who have gone on to become "bigs" themselves - has convinced her that Big Brothers/Big Sisters is an extremely important and effective way to give to others and enrich your own life at the same time.

The program doesn't suit everyone and it doesn't accept everyone. Those who are interested in participating have to go through a half-hour to 45-minute orientation before filling out an application.

That orientation provides enough information to tell some people right away that this program won't work for them. Those people then save themselves and the organization the full screening process, which is time-consuming and expensive (It costs the agency about $500 a match to screen, monitor the relationship and recruit new volunteers).

Anyone who decides they do want to commit to a "big-little" relationship is then screened thoroughly, including a background police check, home visits, references, etc. The process takes a month to six weeks.

Then the agency tries to take into account personality and preferences to assure a successful match between the child and the adult.

Throughout the relationship, Big Brothers/Big Sisters provides ongoing social worker support.

From a human-needs viewpoint, the program is crucial. Of the children listed with the Salt Lake City agency alone, 76 percent of the children come from homes where drug and alcohol abuse have been a problem; 30 percent have been sexually abused; 35 percent have suffered because of gross neglect or physical abuse. And 7 out of 10 "littles" live below the poverty level.

These are children who need all the help they can get to build a future. Listening to Scotti Davis, you begin to believe that there are hundreds - even thousands - of caring adults locally who could be a part of that future's foundation.

It begins, she told me, with a phone call. "And it can add more to an adult's life than almost anything else they'll ever do," she said.

The number is 487-8101.