Saturday, April 25, 2015

Not a Walk in the Park

Meet Manuel:  A sweet, respectful and enthusiastic young boy.  At first glance he looks a lot like other boys his age, but when you talk to his teachers you hear a different story.  “When it’s time to focus on school work, he just shuts down. There has been a progressive decline throughout the year. It’s getting worse as we prepare for the STARR test, and Manuel is dangerously close to repeating his 6th grade year.”

Alexandra, also in the 6th grade, has a crush on a fellow classmate and lives with her dad.  She recently experienced a disastrous reunion with her birth mother.  Her single father says, “I worry about her lack of strong female role models.”

Over the past year, MJ went from a child to adolescent with major voice changes, shocking growth spurts, and a relentless interest in the opposite sex. He complains that his grandmother can’t afford to get him school supplies or shoes that fit and that his father has disappeared again. His teachers say that he talks too much and has an overwhelming need for attention.  His classmates complain that he gossips too much. His counselor says, “I’ve noticed a pattern of blaming others, never holding himself accountable.”  In fact, MJhas managed to push everyone away this past year, and now, at the end of his first year of middle school, MJ is friendless. 

Thankfully, these three kids all have one thing in common besides the fact that they are experiencing life challenges:  They have Big Sisters.   

Volunteers Jenica, Sylvia and Sonia all work at QVC, one of 40 companies that host the Big Brothers Big Sisters Workplace MentoringProgram each month.   They are part of a group of 17 mentors at QVC who have stepped up to help kids connect the dots between their education now and their career later.   But they are first and foremost, friends. 

Jenica is super sweet with a really big heart. I’ve seen her get weepy-eyed over Manuel’s’ struggles. You can tell she thinks the world of him,” says Megan McLeod, Big Brothers Big Sisters Match Support Specialist.   Sylvia, Alexandra's’s Big Sister, is a momma-bear. She has a lot of patience and is always smiling. Alexandra’s very active and a bit on the loud side, but Sylvia handles it well.”  

It's easy to see how much Megan likes and appreciates these caring adults.  “Sonia is outgoing and easy to talk with. I like talking with her because she doesn’t sugar coat or hesitate to share her opinion. She’s assertive and knows how to lay down the law with MJ when she needs to.”

At one time or another, all 3 of these Big Sisters have expressed doubts about their ability to respond to the struggles their kids are facing, and whether or not they are making a difference.  At Big Brothers Big Sisters we know, for a variety of reasons, that they absolutely are making a difference, whether they know it or not.  I wrote about a 56 year old Little Sister in January who assured her Big Sister that she was always listening.  It’s great for this long-time mentor to hear this now, but of course she didn’t know it at the time. 

One of the things we measure at Big Brothers Big Sisters is the “strength of the mentoring relationship.”  We do this because we know that it is this relationship that is the catalyst for positive youth development.  When Bigs and Littles become friends, the trust that is needed in order for a child to accept the support of a mentor falls into place.  As any parent knows, there is very little instant gratification in providing support to pre-adolescent and adolescents.  We often feel we are not reaching our kids, we worry about their future, we despair.*  So, it's really no surprise that the same thing happens with Bigs and Littles.  We see all the time in evaluations and surveys that there is a disparity between the difference the volunteers feel they are making and the reality of how the kids feel.  For example, surveys of the QVC Bigs and Littles finds that: 

  • Only 92% of volunteer “Bigs” report that they are confident in handling the challenges of being a mentor, while 100% of kids report that they feel like their volunteer “Big” has good ideas about how to solve problems.
  • Only 85% of Bigs feel that they have a close relationship with their Littles, while 100% of the kids report feeling close to their mentors. 

100% of kids also report that the relationship with their volunteer “Big” is important to them, and they all say that they feel safe with their Big. For us at BBBS, this is success, but we struggle to assure our volunteers that they are doing exactly what we and the kids need them to be doing.  The bottom line is that none of us had mentors who solved all of our problems for us.  Our mentors stood by us, supporting and guiding, and making us stronger and more resilient in meeting life's challenges."

QVC Bigs and Littles
We are so grateful that Manuel has Jenica in his life as he struggles with the transition to middle school and with his academics. We once asked Manuel if he was interested in having a Big Brother instead of a Big Sister and he wouldn't even hear if it.  He cant imagine losing his Big Sister.  Alexandra has said that she likes some of her teachers but can’t communicate with them like she can with Sylvia. Thank goodness she has Sylvia to confide in and talk about the tough stuff.  And we are very grateful for the rapport Sonia has developed with MJ and the fact that she is comfortable telling him it's "Time to get your act together!” And he listens! 

Mentoring at-risk kids is no walk in the park, but everyone knows that what kids need to grow up successfully is the support and guidance of caring adults. Jenica, Sylvia and Sonia, the other 14 mentors at QVC as well as 2,000 other volunteers in our program have stepped up to do just that.  We just wish they would believe us when we tell them how important and meaningful and effective their work is.    

April is Volunteer Appreciation Month, so if you know of a volunteer, especially one who mentors at risk kids, give them a shout-out!  

With Appreciation to Megan McLeod for her contributions to this post.  

*Maybe that's just me with my kids, I don't know. 

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