(Editor’s note: Next week, View Newspapers will feature stories on a couple of area “Bigs,” as well as bios on some “Littles” still awaiting mentors.)
GENESEE COUNTY — Like many kids his age, an 11-year-old Flushing resident named Jake is eagerly looking forward to filling the summer months with as much fun as possible.
Described by his mom as an outgoing boy, Jake enjoys many hobbies and activities, including basketball, baseball and bike riding. And with school out for several months, he’ll have plenty of time to jump on the trampoline and ride his scooter around the neighborhood.
But for Jake, summer fun would be even more enjoyable if he had a Big Brother to spend time with. That’s because he’s one of many children in Genesee County who are waiting to be matched with a mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
For 75 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flint & Genesee County has played an integral role in changing the lives of young people by creating professionally-supported, one-to-one matches with local volunteer mentor. The nonprofit serves youth from 6 to 18 years old.
Kids enrolled in the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program — affectionately termed “Littles” — get the chance to learn life skills from their “Bigs” and have quality time with role models who share their interests.
Most importantly, the program helps kids realize their full potential.
“Our volunteers do a wonderful job of exposing young people to new adventures and creating a sense of awareness about what they can do and how they can reach goals,” said BBBS Executive Director Reta Stanley. “Through our program, more youth are being empowered to pursue their dreams, go to college and land careers.”
Although many volunteers have stepped in to serve as Bigs over the years, Stanley said her organization now faces an even greater need for mentors. In the average year, 150 to 200 kids wait to be placed with a Big Brother or Big Sister.
Stanley said it’s vital for BBBS to reach youth who are facing adversity, whether it’s financial or personal.
“There are all kinds of reasons why parents and caregivers enroll their children in the program,” Stanley said. “It could be (motivated by) environment or circumstances. Some children are living with grandparents who don’t have the energy to keep up, or a child could be having behavioral issues, or a child may be getting bullied.
“Of course, we want to emphasize that it’s not just something parents or caregivers want,” she added. “There are many children who want to enroll to have a Big Brother or Big Sister. They want to have someone who will listen to them and guide them.”
When Bigs and Littles become matched, they are encouraged to choose activities that will allow them to get to know one another and build relationships. Depending on the age of the child and/or their interests, activities can range from going to the movies to visiting museums or simply strolling through the park.
During the relationship-building process, Littles get the chance to pursue hobbies or activities they love with a mentor by their side. Moreover, they can choose to take up new interests suggested by their Bigs or even participate in community outreach efforts with their mentors.
Above all, Big Brothers Big Sisters focuses on defending the potential of youth by igniting their dreams and aligning them on a path to success. Beyond giving boys and girls a Big to spend time with, the organization also strives to help young people improve in school, stay out of trouble and excel in what they’re good at.
In 2017, BBBS reported that 58.4 percent of Littles improved or maintained school attendance, 79.2 percent improved or maintained attitudes toward risky behaviors, and 95.8 percent avoided juvenile justice involvement.
BBBS has also been instrumental in helping youth blossom in the classroom through its school-based programs and partnerships with local school districts. In 2017, 83.4 percent of Littles improved or maintained educational expectations, 87.5 percent pursued post-secondary education or vocational training, and 100 percent of projected youth graduated from high school.
During her time as executive director, Stanley said, retention is the biggest key for Littles; the longer they stay in the program and/or connected with their mentor, the more successful they become.
“We like for our matches to last at least 12 months, and our ideal is that the Big-Little relationships can last to graduation,” she said. “We see that positive impact is reached over a period of at least 18 months.”
Stanley said she has also seen Bigs help older kids get jobs or gain entry in college. For example, a Big Sister helped her Little get a summer job and financial aid to attend Grand Valley State University. A Big Brother also helped pave the way for his Little to attend Mott Community College’s Culinary Arts program.
How to become a Big
Men and women interested in becoming Bigs can schedule a volunteer orientation with BBBS and interview with one of the organization’s professional staff. If they feel they’re a good fit for Big Brothers Big Sisters, potential Bigs can then complete enrollment paperwork, which includes an application, criminal background check release and copies of a driver’s license or state issued identification card and proof of auto insurance.
Bigs then must complete volunteer training before a match can occur. Ongoing volunteer training is available throughout the match’s lifecycle and is available online or in-person.
Potential Bigs must also meet the following criteria:
1. They must reside in Genesee County.
2. Complete enrollment process including orientation, in-person interview, background checks, character references and volunteer training.
3. Commit to a minimum of four to six hours a month with their Little for a year.
Upon completion of training, Bigs may choose to pursue a school-based match or community-based match. School-based matches are restricted to match activities occurring only at the school/site at the schedule program time. Community-based matches, on the other hand, have the flexibility to schedule match activities that work for everyone’s schedule.
Match activities should be scheduled on a regular and consistent basis. Big Brothers Big Sisters recommends Bigs always include their Littles when planning activities, and get approval from a parent or caregiver. The organization also encourages mentors to choose no- or low-cost activities that focus on building healthy relationships with their Littles.
When they become matched with a child, Bigs are assigned a case manager who communicates with them regularly to offer assistance and guidance. Case managers are also a resource for activities and provide opportunities for Bigs and Littles to attend local sporting events and cultural activities.
Getting a Big
Parents and caregivers interested in enrolling their children in the BBBS program can call 810-235-0617 to get the process started. The child and their parent/ caregiver will then complete orientation and pre-match training along with in-person interviews with BBBS staff.
Big Brothers Big Sisters will talk with parents/caregivers about the Big they have in mind before moving forward. From there, a “Match Meeting” is arranged to introduce the child to his or her Big. Once a match is made, the BBBS staff will communicate regularly with Littles and their parents to ensure that the match is a successful, safe and rewarding experience for everyone.
“We’re trying to move people from thinking about volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters to actually doing it,” Stanley said. “We’re just continuing to encourage the community to consider mentoring and to at least call to see if that might be something that they’re interested in.”
To learn more about becoming a Big Brother or Sister, or to enroll your child in the program, visit bbbsflint.org. More information about the organization and its enrichment programs can also be found on the website.