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Big Brothers Big Sisters, A Community of Caring

Five counties in southwest Michigan are served by Big Brothers Big Sisters, A Community of Caring. These communities benefit from the tried and true system of matching disadvantaged youth with volunteers who act as their friends and mentors. Supportive role models lead to higher aspirations and educational success for children.
Michigan Nightlight In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable? 
Big Brothers Big Sisters, A Community of Caring Executive Director Deborah Buchholtz: The Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentoring model is unique because it is more than just a program. It is a proven way to provide vulnerable children with a friend and a relationship that fundamentally impacts all aspects of the child’s life and well-being.
Big Brothers Big Sisters, A Community of Caring places positive, supportive role models in the lives of disadvantaged youth. The children, ages 5 to 17, are matched with caring volunteers by trained, professional staff. BBBS carefully interviews and screens children and their families and the volunteer mentors to purposefully match interests, needs and abilities. The
The relationships and experiences we have as youth dramatically shape our future lives.
resulting one-to-one relationship or “match” is supported by our staff for the life of the match. This intentional matching and ongoing support create measurable positive change in the mentored children. Our studies have shown that after one year of being matched with their Big, Littles have an improved sense of confidence and self worth, improved grades and attendance at school, avoidance of risky behaviors, and better relationships with friends and family. All of these are important factors in helping the children achieve their life’s potential.
The Littles and their Bigs come from urban, suburban and rural areas throughout our five-county region. The children are culturally diverse and usually come from low-income, single-parent households. Bigs spend four to eight hours a month with their Little as a guiding, supportive friend. Our best-known program involves a “community match” where Little and Big spend time together doing everyday activities – going to the library, playing catch, riding bikes – whatever they might normally do, they just do it together. Our other programs are what we call “site based” and take place at schools and businesses. Bigs and Littles involved with site-based programs spend time together in one-to-one settings and in small group activities.
One thing we always make sure our Bigs know is that we do not expect – or want – them to spend much money when they are with their Little. To support this, we are developing programs for our matches where we offer free or low-cost activities several times a month. One thing we do ask of our Bigs is a minimum commitment of one year and, in fact, most of our matches last much longer than that. This commitment from the Bigs leads to consistent, trusting relationships that have a positive impact on the Littles’ lives. 
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
The children we serve are most often from low-income, single-parent households and generally do not have access to the same experiences and supportive environments that are available to children who come from two-parent, higher-income households. The relationships and experiences we have as youth dramatically shape our future lives. In the past year – the first year of our new executive director – we’ve learned to reach out to partners in the community so we can increase the number of match activities available to build the relationship between the Big and Little and expose the Little to new experiences and ideas. Through these community partnerships, we can offer a wider range of activities in the areas of health and wellness, arts and culture, financial literacy, and the environment. These activities will increase access to opportunities and information our Littles might not otherwise have that may well open the door to a career pathway they’d not considered before. We’ve learned that local organizations and businesses want to support their communities, particularly local youth. Nonprofit youth-serving organizations must facilitate opportunities for corporate involvement and collaborate with one another to produce greater impact on the children we serve and the communities in which we live.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
Our five-county region covers large cities to small towns, and I’ve learned that each area’s needs are different. We’re establishing a Community Board in each county that reflects the populations within that community. Some counties may have more than one “community.” The boards work with our staff to help guide our outreach, marketing and fundraising efforts in the community. The committee members provide oversight and a solid organizational presence in the community and assist in developing partnerships with local organizations. Big Brothers Big Sisters is absolutely dedicated to developing deep and strong roots in the communities we serve. These Community Boards will help us develop a sustainable and committed presence within the communities so we become trusted, relied upon and respected for being a strong partner in improving the outcomes and lives of children.
What really differentiates this program?
For more than 100 years nationally, and more than 50 locally, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been widely recognized as the premier mentoring organization because we can prove that our program works. A recent study by Big Brothers Big Sister of America showed that after a year in our program 95.2 percent of children performed better in school or maintained average or above-average grades. Also, 96.6 percent of children had greater self-confidence and increased positive community/school involvement, and 83.4 percent were less likely to engage in risky behaviors. These results are made possible through intentional matching with a mentor and the careful monitoring and support we provide for the duration of the match. Our model is most successful because of the intensive involvement and oversight of our professional staff.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Over the years, Big Brothers Big Sisters has developed several different programs so that no matter a mentor’s schedule and demands on their time, one of the programs will fit into their life. We have programs for individuals, couples and families. Individuals can even get involved through their employer or a school. Our programs include Community-Based Mentoring where individuals, couples and families are matched with a “Little” between the ages of 5 and 17 to share fun and rewarding experiences throughout the community as they build their relationship. By meeting four to eight hours a month on a consistent but flexible basis, the mentor, or “Big”, is able to expose the Little to new people, places and ideas to broaden their exposure and thinking about the world around them and the myriad opportunities available. 
In our School-Based Mentoring individuals spend part of their work day with their “Little” at a nearby elementary or middle school to build their relationship, play games, help with school work, and simply talk about the student’s day. They generally meet two to four times a month for 45 minutes to an hour at lunch or another time convenient to work and school schedules during the school year.
In our Business/Employment Based Mentoring middle and high school students are matched and transported to the workplace to spend time with their mentor on the job. Matches usually meet to develop and grow their relationship two times a month for about an hour, sometimes spending part of their time in a structured group activity with other matches at the site exploring various facets of the workplace or participating in a themed program. 
These culturally diverse matches have the added benefit of allowing each party to learn about and experience the otherís culture and better understand the diversity of our world.

How do race or diversity affect the work of your program?
While we strive to match children with mentors of a similar racial background, this isn’t always possible. Generally, while we have equal numbers of boys and girls seeking Bigs, we have more women volunteering than men; this leads to longer waiting times for boys. Also, not only do we need more male mentors, we need more African-American male mentors. About 40 percent of the children seeking a Big are Black or Bi-racial, about half to 60 percent are Caucasian, and four to five percent are Hispanic. Unfortunately, our volunteer population does not match this demand. On the bright side, studies show mixed-race matches produce equally positive outcomes for the child. These culturally diverse matches have the added benefit of allowing each party to learn about and experience the other’s culture and better understand the diversity of our world.
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