Supporting the Younger Set: Mentoring programs for kids and families

Big Brothers Big Sisters has helped thousands of children and youth in the years they have been in York Region. Big Brothers Big Sisters of York dates back almost 50 years, about half as long as the century-old parent organization. The agency’s goal is to provide positive role models in the lives of children and youth through trained volunteers.

The benefits of mentoring programs like this truly last a lifetime. Program and Site-Based Coordinator Devinder Hallan shares a story of a big brother and little brother who have been matched for three years now. Like many matches, the boy has thrived under the mentorship of his big brother. “Mom says it’s a perfect match; they’re spitting images of each other,” says Hallan. While little brother has certainly benefited from the relationship, he has also played an influential role in the life of his big brother, who recently struggled with some health issues. Now, big brother is engaged. “He’s getting married next year and he’s asked his little brother to be in the wedding party,” Hallan explains.

Mentoring takes shape in many different forms. “To provide a child with a positive influence in any way can be life-changing,” says Enrolment and Site-Based Programs Team Lead Katie Lowes. “But it doesn’t require taking life-changing steps to be able to make an impact on a child’s life in that way.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters is best known for its namesake program, which pairs adults with youth for one-on-one mentoring. But the York Region branch also offers group-mentoring programs, which require a one-hour commitment per week from the volunteer mentor and offer the potential to touch the lives of 10 to 15 children. The agency looks to connect the youth and their families with resources outside of the programming as well, such as workshops on social networking and safe Internet use. “It goes beyond the scope of just being a program where you’re being matched with a volunteer,” Hallan says.

Last year, volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of York impacted the lives of more than 550 youth and children. The children and youth come from a wide-variety of experiences and situations, whether it be a busy home life with parents working multiple jobs, or growing up with parents who are experiencing mental health or addiction problems. Their common thread is that something has put them at risk of not developing to their full potential.

Mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters provide children with the ability to achieve more in any aspect of their lives – such as academic performance, social and community engagement, or even developing better manners at home. The one-on-one experience looks different for everyone. “For some matches, it might involve playing basketball, or going to the mall, just hanging out and talking,” says Lowes. “It comes down to building that relationship, and building greater confidence for the children.”

Some 250 mentors volunteered with the agency last year, but there is always a need for more. Big brothers are especially needed, as the York Region branch currently has 10 to 15 little brothers waiting for every one volunteer mentor who walks through the door.

Big Brothers Big Sisters welcomes volunteers ages 18-plus. Every mentor’s motivation for volunteering is different. “A lot of times they are people who have a fantastic home life growing up, and they recognize how important that support and unconditional love was in making them the person they became,” says Lowes. “And then sometimes the mentors come to us because they didn’t have that support when they were young, and they don’t want to see another child go through their adolescence without having someone in their corner.”

The effects are as impactful for the mentors as they are for the children. “For anyone thinking about volunteering, it doesn’t take a saint or a rocket scientist to be able to spend quality time with a child and make them feel worthy of that time,” says Lowes. “Just giving back a little time here and there is all it takes to build up a child’s confidence and help them achieve more in some way.”

by Denise Davy & Charlotte Ottaway


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Big Brothers Big Sisters of York

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