Despite the eight-year age difference, high school senior Elijah Beal and fourth-grader Michael Howenstein are best buds.
Elijah, 18, and Michael, 10, were paired up four years ago through the big buddy program at Blessed Sacrament School in Belleville when Elijah was an eighth-grader and Michael was in kindergarten. They have stayed friends.
"Back then, I was kind of like a role model or mentor for him," Elijah said. "He'll come to me with his little kindergarten problems."
Elijah has given Michael plenty of advice including "enjoy school, make friends and have a positive attitude."
Michael said the best advice Elijah has given him is to "work hard and practice."
Elijah and Michael hit it off right away since both have similar interests.
"We are almost exactly alike," Elijah said. "We both play sports and both like school."
"His favorite sport is baseball and that's my favorite sport, too," Michael said.
Blessed Sacrament Principal Claire Hatch said the school tries to pair buddies with similar interests and personalities.
Big buddies and their little pals get together almost every week during the school year, according to Hatch. "They do some kind of activity," she said, "whether it's reading to them, doing art projects or eating lunch together."
Elijah no longer plays baseball, but still plays tennis, golf and he bowls. Michael plays four sports -- baseball, volleyball, basketball and soccer.
Now, Elijah attends Michael's volleyball games at Blessed Sacrament and they chat afterward. The pair recently played catch at Signal Hill Park in Belleville over their Easter break from school.
"We will meet up and talk and kind of catch up," Elijah said. "Every time I come back and see him, it seems he's grown another six inches. He's matured a lot. In four years, it's crazy how much he's changed."
They often talk about their families and the sports they play.
Elijah said Michael is "kind of like the little brother I never had. We have so much fun together," he said.
Michael said Elijah is like an older brother to him. "I want to be like him," said Michael, who has three younger sisters and another sibling who is expected to arrive in September.
Elijah hadn't planned on staying in touch with his Blessed Sacrament buddy. "It just kind of happened," he said.
"I'm really glad we are still friends," Michael said.
Michael's mother Christy Howenstein said the friendship with Elijah has helped her son.
"It's definitely a good relationship for Michael," she said. "I'm glad it continued on (past kindergarten). He really looks up to Elijah."
In the fall, Elijah will head off to University of Tallahassee and plans to major in engineering management.
He plans to stay in touch with Michael via Skype -- a type of online phone call -- and continue to be his mentor.
"I try to keep him involved and motivated," Elijah said.
Being a role model for Michael, Elijah said, keeps him in line too.
"I would never want to do something I wouldn't want Michael to know about," Elijah said. "You want them to think of you as someone who is a great person and does well in life."
Now Elijah's sister, Annika Beal, is in the eighth-grade at Blessed Sacrament and has a little buddy of her own.
"It's a great experience," Elijah said of the big buddy program. "It's a great feeling. You know you are making an impact on someone else's life for the better."
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parents: Carolyn and Jim Beal
School: senior at Althoff Catholic High School
Favorite subject: English
Favorite book: "The Godfather" by Mario Puzo
Favorite TV show: "SportsCenter"
Plays: tennis, golf and bowling
Parents: Michael and Christy Howenstein
School: fourth-grader at Blessed Sacrament School in Belleville
Favorite subject: Physical education
Favorite book: A series of books called "I Survived" (by Lauren Tarshis)
Favorite TV show: "I don't really know," Michael said. "I like a lot of shows."
Plays: baseball, volleyball, basketball and soccer