A few months ago, I moved to Canada to do an internship for an organisation called Big Brothers Big Sisters. Many people have asked me what BBBS is about, and my answer usually was `We provide children with a positive role-model. ` However, I wasn`t fully aware of either the meaning or importance of this at the time nor of the actual role of a mentor. What does `being a Big Brother or Sister` entail? How do they make a difference? Over time, I have learned a lot about the positive effects our volunteers have on the children in our programmes. Mentoring has not only helped children, but has helped their parents as well. Additionally, many volunteers feel that they have benefitted from the experience themselves too. Let me tell you more about the insights I have gained from my time at BBBS.
I`ll start off by telling you a little about the background of BBBS. This organization started in 1903 in the USA, when a group of young men noticed a higher crime-rate among children from single-parent families. They wanted to offer these children someone who could encourage them in life, someone they could trust, someone inspirational… who wasn`t a parent or a teacher. Children who join BBBS often have academic or behavioural problems. They may get bullied in school or be bullies themselves. They may feel lonely or are having a hard time making friends. Since the start of BBBS, more than 6000 children have been helped with these issues and BBBS has become an international organisation with agencies across a variety of countries.
We have different programs within the organisation. The ones I am most involved in are the so-called `Traditional program` and the `In-school program`.
In the traditional program, The Big Brother or Big Sister sees his or her child once every two weeks. For about 3 to 4 hours, they get to do something fun. This can be anything, and we encourage them to try new activities every time. I`ve heard volunteers saying that they learnt a new skill with their mentees such as ice-skating or cooking. Many also do arts and crafts with their children, try different sports or take them out for dinners to try new foods. The aim is that the child learns to be open to new experiences and discovers new activities. Parents often tell us that they don`t have the time to take their children out, and that therefore their children stay in their little bubble at home, often sitting behind the computer. By going out with their Big Brothers and Sisters, they get involved in new projects, step outside of their comfort zone and develop new interests. This way, children sometimes also discover something they can get passionate about. This doesn`t have to be only in terms of fun activities, but may entail the discovery of new ambitions. For many young children, something like going to University seems to be a very far-fetched goal that they will never be able to attain. Sometimes there is no one in their inner-circle of people who went to university, so why would they? However, when their BB or BS tells them about their study experiences, it seems more in reach. They may think, `Hey, this is something I actually can do as well`. Through mentoring, children develop a hope for the future, in which they value school more and also start to believe that they can finish school. In Montreal, 1 in 5 children drops out of high school. We want to decrease this number. We want children to develop dreams in which they believe.
The in-school program is more or less the same, except for the fact that the volunteers see their children only one-hour a week and they have to stay within the school parameters. The in-school program lasts for the academic year, whereas the Traditional program demands more of a commitment. Officially, volunteers commit only for one year, but they are very much encouraged to stay matched until the child reaches the age of 18 years old. There are wonderful stories of pairings that have remained together for the rest of their lives. For example, someone told me that they walked their little brother down the aisle! This is a cute video of a Big Brother and a Little Brother who met 17 years ago and who talk about their experience together:
Besides experiencing a wider range of activities, most parents tell us that their child`s self-esteem has increased since they have been paired. Children find the fact that somebody takes the time to see them every (other) week absolutely incredible and it makes them feel very valued and special. Often, the child is withdrawn at first and doesn`t really dare to take initiative or to express himself. Over time, they become less shy and gain confidence in their communication and social skills. They tend to open up and even start sharing very personal information with their Big Brother or Big Sister. Essentially, when you become a Big Brother or Big Sister you get to have a new little friend with whom you can have quality moments, talk to, laugh with, and just have fun with.
By helping the children develop their interests, increasing their self-esteem and increasing their trust towards adults, we believe that they they tend to engage less in antisocial activities such as delinquent behaviour and bullying. Research has also shown that it improves their academic performances. Children get higher grades, attendance rates increase and they value school more. Being involved in BBBBS also seems to improve their overall relationships with peers and family, and it limits their drug and alcohol use.
If this doesn`t convince you yet, I should tell you about one of the many amazing events that BBBS organises. In September, I joined our staff-team to Camp Bruschési. This is a stunning lakeside about a one-hour drive outside of Montreal. Here, 26 pairings came together to have a day of fun and to share their experiences. We were divided in different teams, differentiating one another by putting some face paint on our cheeks. The activities covered everything from archery to canoeing and climbing. We started off with a dance with the children to warm up. The climbing I thought was incredibly difficult. The kids seemed to be up there in no time; however I had a much harder time! As did my colleague who at some point faced the wall with her back (see the picture below). However, she did get to the top! My brother joined us too, and the kids were very impressed with his skills. I heard one of them say `Look, it`s Spiderman!`. When playing archery, my brother also managed to get the arrow right into the bullseye! My arrow wasn`t even anywhere near the board…
Everyone seemed to have a really good time at the camp. Volunteers often say that they like to be a part of something and to be able to give back. The feeling of being able to contribute to someone`s life and society, and to be valued, is very rewarding and fulfilling. They also get the chance of being a child again themselves and doing activities they wouldn`t normally do anymore. Furthermore, volunteers gain more confidence in their abilities with children. They learn how to deal with responsibilities and become more adaptive. What I also believe is very valuable, is that they become more open-minded as they start to appreciate others views, values, attitudes and culture. Seeing another vision of family life and education brings more tolerance.
Last but not least, it`s very valuable for parents to feel supported. They learn to trust someone from outside, as they don`t often have a big network. Social workers are frequently viewed by others as `scary` people who could possibly take your child away. Here, they learn to trust social workers and realise that they are not alone in the care for their children. This can make them feel less alone and isolated. It`s also reassuring for a parent to know that a child has someone to identify with. One lady told me that the Big Sister of her child was like `an angel that has come into our lives`. Moreover, it may sound like the simplest thing, but during those three to four hours that their child is with a volunteer, parents simply get to have a break. They get to have time off. For those few hours in the weekend, they can relax and do something completely for themselves.
I hope I gave you a bit of a taste of what BBBS does and how valuable it is. It opened my eyes to realise that one person can actually make an enormous difference in a child`s life. There are more programs provided by BBBS besides the once that I have told you about. For example Healthy Bodies, Healthy minds and the programs specifically centered around tutoring are also worth looking into.
If you are interested in becoming involved in the organisation in Montréal, you can go to our website: http://www.gfgsmtl.qc.ca/en/accueil.php. We would get in touch with you and organize an interview to get to know you better. You would need to provide 3 references and we will send out a police check. If everything is alright, we`ll give you a training session and find you a new child friend! I`m telling you, you`re going to love it!
Ps, if you have any questions, leave a comment and I`d be happy to tell you more!