Eli Miller, Joel Allen 'the perfect match' built through Big Friend Little Friend

MHS senior, DWU professor share time, life lessons

From left to right Joel Allen and Eli Miller sit at a picnic table at the Kiwanis Woodlot Park on Monday, April 17, 2023, in Mitchell.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — Elijah Miller is right in the middle of discussing quantum computing and his college plans during a conversation at Kiwanis Woodlot Park on Lake Mitchell when a tiny voice chirps up from the playground.

“Eli! Eli!”

Miller stops mid-sentence and jumps over to where his niece, Marley, is dangling from some monkey bars about a foot and a half off the ground. Miller gently scoops her in his arms and brings her down for a soft landing. A few seconds later, he returns to his seat where he can keep an eye on the 7-year-old.

“Sorry about that,” Miller said cheerfully before picking up right where he left off.

Joel Allen, a professor of religion and philosophy at Dakota Wesleyan University, has seen this caring and attentiveness before in Miller. As the older half of the Big Friend Little Friend pairing of him and Miller, he has gotten to know him as a strikingly bright, engaging Mitchell High School senior who always seems to be putting others before himself.


“He’s such a thoughtful kid. I’ll never forget this: We went to the Corn Palace Festival, and we bought all kinds of junk food. We got a big thing of deep-fried Oreos, and he was walking around with three of them. And I was telling him to eat the rest of them,” Allen told the Mitchell Republic during a recent interview. “He was saving them for his mother.”

Making a connection

Miller and Allen have been spending time together since 2017, when the Big Friend Little Friend organization in Mitchell connected the two after Miller’s first mentor could no longer spend as much time with him. The organization is a youth mentoring agency that has been in the Mitchell area since 2010. It strives to match volunteer mentors with young people who could benefit from a positive role model.

Since that time, the two have bonded over exploring antique stores, cooking and trying vintage recipes, walks near Lake Mitchell and deep-dive discussions on American history.

They have clearly formed a connection. Miller, 18, is glad they did after his first experience with the Big Friend Little Friend program failed to ignite a spark.

“I was in the program back in the third or fourth grade. At that time my big friend was a person in college who couldn’t meet up with me a lot of the time. And then, they just didn’t show up anymore,” Miller said. “And that was it. They didn’t even give notice.”

His adoptive parents, Rod and Ann Miller, hoped to find him a mentor to help give him some guidance and help him navigate his bouts of depression. So they gave the program another try, and after nearly a year, the organization informed them they might have a match for Miller.

“My mom brought me down there and we went through a questionnaire about what I liked, and we didn’t hear back for almost 11 months. And then they called my mom and said they had found someone I might like,” Miller said.

Miller credits his adoptive parents with giving him a good, stable homelife. But like most parents, life was busy with work and other obligations, and health issues made it difficult to keep up with the teenager. A good, solid mentor would do Miller good, they reasoned.


Elijah Miller and his niece Marley spend time at Kiwanis Woodlot Park near Lake Mitchell recently.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Enter Allen, who had considered joining the organization for some time before taking the plunge in 2017.

“I felt like I should be able to give back to the community more, and I thought Big Friend Little Friend seemed to be such a good model. Research has been done on people who have been able to work out of poverty and into the middle class almost always have a person there that’s coaching them and mentoring them,” Allen said. “Mentorship is by far the most effective method of helping people.”

Miller still remembers the day that the two first got together. His mom dropped him off at Allen’s house, where the two went for a bike ride. Allen and his wife had Miller over for dinner, and Allen, who was preparing for a professional trip to Israel, was surprised by Miller’s interest in the country and its social and political situation.

“I was just getting ready to go to Israel, and we had Eli over for dinner and I was getting ready to go the next day, and we were talking about Israel a little and then Eli asked us, ‘So what is your position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict?’” Allen said. “And I said that it would take awhile to give you an answer to that because that is the smartest question I’ve heard in a long time. I couldn’t believe how much he knew about the situation.”

Allen soon learned that he had been paired with an intelligent, caring young man who had a number of unique interests. He loved American history, which the two foster through their trips to antique stores. He had a fondness for collecting coins. And he enjoyed a good conversation and could talk about a wide range of topics.

Miller said a natural friendship began to blossom from their first meeting. He was impressed with the thoughtfulness when Allen asked if Miller would mind if Allen had an adult beverage with dinner.

“Joel is someone I can talk to. Something that really made me like him was, because my brother was an alcoholic, I don’t really like people being drunk or getting mad. The first thing he asks me is that he’d like to have something to drink while we go to dinner. Only a glass. Would that be OK with me?” Miller said. “The fact that he even asked — in his own home — that made me appreciate the big guy.”

Miller said the experience with Allen was a revelation.


“It was the funnest night I’d had in three months. He’s a good friend,” Miller said.

Navigating tough times

The two continued to spend time with each other whenever they could, and Miller credits Allen with helping him spread his wings and, along with his parents, allowing him to step out of the shadow of a history of tragedy within his biological family. Miller lost an older sister who died in a car crash, and a brother got involved with methamphetamine and is in jail. Another sister suffered from schizophrenia.

Last December, a half-sister and her boyfriend were arrested in Mitchell for transporting the dead body of their adopted daughter, Meela, across the country in a U-Haul trailer . The two were extradited to Washington, where they faced charges in the death.

Miller shakes his head and does not mince words about the couple.

“I hope they get everything thrown at them,” Miller said.

Time spent with Allen is a way to focus on the positives in his life, and Allen said being with Miller has broadened his own appreciation for simple friendship.

Elijah Miller poses for a picture with his late neice Meela in 2020.
Photo Courtesy of Elijah Miller

“He just keeps me entertained. He’s such an interesting kid. He’s always got something that he’s learned online. It keeps my mind sharp,” Allen said.

Linda McEntee, executive director of Big Friend Little Friend, said the pairing of Miller and Allen is an almost textbook example of a good connection that the organization can foster when the right two individuals are matched.


“I would say they’re the perfect match,” McEntee said. “They both are so smart, so intellectual and articulate. They are a great match.”

Giving youth in the community a chance to connect with like-minded mentors allows them to transition into responsible adults who are engaged in the community. Youth in the program come from a wide range of households, from troubled to loving, but they can all benefit from interacting with active, responsible adults in the community.

“Some of our kids come from hard places, some live in a very loving home. We try to empower our kids to be who they can be. To know that they are successful and empower them,” McEntee said.

And the program is growing. McEntee said the organization is about at the limit of what it can handle with a two-person office staff. It has 46 youth enrolled through its school-based program and another 34 through the community-based side of the organization. Another two are expected to join soon.

The need for new mentors is always there, she said.

“There have been times over the years when we’re up and down and then we’re up again, so we’re very blessed to have the volunteers,” McEntee said. “If we don’t have a match for a child or mentor, we wait, and we do have kids on the waiting list. We’re just going day by day.”

Looking to the future

Miller himself has worked hard to not fall into the same traps as some of his siblings. His grades in high school have been excellent, and he will graduate from Mitchell High School in May. After that, he will attend Dakota Wesleyan University, where he will study American history with a minor in education. He has goals of becoming a high school or middle school history teacher.

He works at County Fair part-time, where he bags groceries and helps customers to their car with their items. As they walk, Miller pulls out what he calls “fun facts” that he recounts to customers as they go. It’s gained him a reputation as an engaging employee, earning compliments from customers who appreciate the chat instead of simple silent service. He’s even been named employee of the month.


“I’ve been told that they appreciate that because I had one woman say that she liked the fact that I was lively,” Miller said with a laugh.

He also donates part of his paycheck to charitable causes, a habit he picked up when he worked for the Salvation Army. He was inspired to work for the nonprofit through his grandmother, Corrine Granger, who was a longtime bell-ringer for the group. He and Allen have volunteered together for the Meals on Wheels service. He donates blood.

Miller said it’s part of a plan to make life a little brighter for people in the world.

“I’ve had this mindset to leave the world in a better place than when I came in,” Miller said.

After he finishes high school, Allen and his wife Kitty plan to take Miller on a celebratory trip to Washington, D.C., a veritable paradise for lovers of American history. A few days will be spent exploring the city, the monuments and the world-class museums.

And then it will soon be time to start his studies at Dakota Wesleyan. He and Allen’s time together as a Big Friend Little Friend pair will have officially come to an end by then, but the two know they’ll still get together. After all, Allen works right there on campus.

Would Miller consider becoming a Big Friend Little Friend mentor himself? He thinks so, but true to his responsible nature, he said he would prefer to be an established high school or middle school teacher first before he dives into the guiding role that Allen has played for him.

Big Friend Little Friend program seeks adults to guide kids

“It's a few hours a week, and it can change a kid’s life. Granted, it wasn’t just a couple of hours a week for us most of the time, but any little thing helps. Especially for children without a male or female role model,” Miller said. “I’d prefer to be in my teaching career before I start thinking about stuff like that, but I absolutely would do it. This has been a major part of my life, and it’s been a very good part of my life.”


He glances over at Allen, who is nodding his head.

“I totally consider you my friend, Joel,” he said.

Allen looks back at him and smiles.

“Eli, I feel exactly the same way.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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