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Guiding Young People through a Strange Summer: A Dispatch from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

By Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

When David Bocangel started volunteering at Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee in 2018, life was quite different. He signed up knowing there was a need for male mentors and those who spoke Spanish. David was excited about the opportunity to mentor a 7-year-old boy and share life experiences, too. Through the mentoring organization’s Site-Based program, David would spend time with Juan each week and Juan’s first grade teacher noticed a change, how he grew academically, and felt more comfortable embracing his differences.

Earlier this year, David made the decision to transition to the Site-Based Plus program so the two could also spend time together outside of school. He’s glad he did. That interaction and connection is even more important today, because of COVID-19 and the concern that social isolation will take a toll on our nation’s youth. 

There are so many unknowns about the long-lasting impact of a global pandemic on our local communities, but one truth remains certain: our youth, like Juan, are considered the most vulnerable, and their wellbeing is critical to our nation’s recovery.

Established more than a century ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters is committed to creating and supporting one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth, now, and long after this crisis ends. Thanks to the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, 15 agencies in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Federation have received funding to continue to innovate and devise new strategies to support our volunteers (called ‘Bigs’), the children we serve (called ‘Littles’) and the Littles’ families.

Our mentoring program is considered an essential service; parents and guardians have a high level of trust in our professionally trained staff. Some have shared that Big Brothers Big Sisters has provided peace of mind that we are here for their child.

Agencies that received funding are located in rural communities and small towns, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Tri-State in Huntington, West Virginia, currently supporting 129 Big/Little matches per year; to larger cities, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati, Ohio, with nearly 1,200 Big/Little matches. The youth and volunteers in the program represent diversity in many areas (i.e. elementary-aged and high school Littles, younger and seasoned volunteers, those in the LGBTQ community and, matches from different ethnic backgrounds).

Each community faces its own unique set of challenges. Based on data from the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study, we know that living in a single-parent household, with a family member suffering from mental illness, or with someone using drugs or alcohol are all indicators of childhood trauma. ACEs are linked to risky health behaviors, poor health outcomes, and even early death. Compared to national statistics, young people enrolled in Big Brothers Big Sisters programs are experiencing these circumstances more often than their peers. Social isolation can compound the effects of trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring relationships can protect against the harmful effects of ACEs and help young people who are exposed to childhood trauma heal.

When schools closed and shelter-in-place orders were enacted nationwide last spring, Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring didn’t stop. Physical distancing guidelines may have paused in-person visits, but Big Brothers Big Sisters staff continue to find innovative ways to keep kids connected. On the national level, we are developing and launching eMentoring communication options allowing staff, Bigs, and Littles to stay in communication virtually and in real time. Not only has it been a sense of comfort for the Little, but the Big, too.

In addition to enhanced mentoring support and coaching, Big Brothers Big Sisters staff have worked to obtain additional resources for families, from delivering food and securing educational tools for learning to even establishing free drive-up Wi-Fi services at their agency offices. And for the Littles, their friendship with their Bigs may be the only sense of normalcy in a world that has turned upside down.

Once we are through this immediate crisis, we know that our youth and families will continue to feel lasting, profound effects. We thank SNF for being a committed partner to help alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thanks to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America for this update on what a summer under COVID-19 looks like for young people around the country and the adults who mentor them. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) provided support as part of the Foundation’s global pandemic relief initiative.