My Turn: Youth-adult mentoring programs strengthen our community

ericka my turn

Sunday, July 16, 2017

“Without you there is no us.” No statement rings truer for us at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County. The important work we do, of helping children reach their highest potential, comes with fiscal responsibility.

Recent data has shown that empowering youth-adult mentoring relationships created and supported by programs like those of Big Brothers Big Sisters, strengthen our community. For every dollar invested in effective mentoring there is a return of $2.72, which includes dollars saved through reduced juvenile delinquency and crime, improved school attendance, higher high school graduation rates and lowered risk of youth being involved in risky behavior, ie: drugs, alcohol and tobacco use.

Data is very powerful, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the outcomes our agency sees every year. We see children who have faced adversity — some of which you and I can only imagine — who now feel safe and supported by their adult mentor. We see children who have greater self-confidence knowing that they have a caring relationship with an adult who can help them navigate life’s challenges. We see smiles where there have been tears. These children are the foundation of our community. They are our future voters, employees, neighbors and caregivers. They are future mentors.

In order to make the highest-quality mentoring matches, we employ trained professional staff, who are able to work closely in supporting the families and volunteers we work with. Nearly all of our budget is funneled directly back into our programming through staff education. Our staff is responsible for maintaining the highest level of safety for the children in our programs, this is done through volunteer interviews, background checks and consistent monitoring of the match. The importance of preparation and knowledge in making, maintaining and supporting mentoring relationships is the key to our success.

We feel your love, Franklin County. Through your generosity we’ve been changing children’s lives for the better, often forever — for 50 years. That is 50 years of being a 100 percent donor-supported nonprofit mentoring agency. That’s 50 years of you believing in our mission. Thank you!

Cheers to our partnership, and the next 50 years of making futures brighter.

Ericka Almeida is the marketing and development coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County.

My Turn, Jessie Cooley, Program Specialist

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

May 17, 2017 Greenfield Recorder

 Have you ever stood at the edge of a lake or river, thrown a pebble with just the right angle and force into the water, and watched it skip across the surface? I can close my eyes and picture it now, that beautiful pattern in the water and the satisfaction of watching the ripple effect of one tiny stone, and one seemingly small action. At Big Brothers Big Sisters, we get to see that kind of impact frequently, as our mentoring programs have a powerful effect on young people, their mentors, their families, and the larger community. And just like with skipping stones, the ripple sometimes goes so far, it blows us all away.

This is what happened with Big Brother Jason Jarvis. Jason grew up in Buckland and participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program as a kid. He was a Little Brother matched with a student at Deerfield Academy, Justin, and they spent Friday nights together having fun on the DA campus. Jason recalls that Justin’s friendship and consistent, one-on-one attention created an important support system for him. Their match officially ended when Justin went off to college, but they stayed in touch. Jason went on to graduate from Franklin County Technical School, find a job he loves as an electrician, and join the U.S. Army National Guard. He bought his own home at age 22 and is deeply involved in his community, volunteering at his church, and as a firefighter in Shelburne Falls. Jason and his Big Brother Justin stayed in contact throughout all these years, and their bond remains strong, though Justin now lives in the Boston area. When he was 23, Jason decided it was time for him to become a Big Brother himself, and in October 2015 he was matched with Chris, a 6-year old boy who lives in Greenfield with his great-grandmother, Judy. Jason and Chris became instant buddies, spending countless hours together fishing, Chris’ favorite activity. Jason also wanted to introduce Chris to all kinds of new activities and adventures, so they went hiking and apple-picking, to a locomotive show at the Big E and the Basketball Hall of Fame. Jason taught Chris how to ski at Berkshire East, and how to change a tire, after they got a flat on their way home from an outing. Chris adores Jason, calling him “the nicest guy I ever met!” Judy sings Jason’s praises too, and is so grateful for his dedication to her great-grandson.

Jason and Chris

One year after being matched with Chris, Jason learned his Army unit was going to be deployed. He thoughtfully discussed this with us at Big Brothers Big Sisters and with Judy, and decided to find a volunteer who could step in for him while he is away. He did not want Chris to be without a Big Brother for so long, and he knew Chris would be worried about him during the deployment and would likely need some extra support. Jason found a wonderful solution in Bob Carmody, a friend and mentor figure for Jason who was happy to help out. Bob is a father of three grown children, a police officer, and an avid outdoorsman. After Jason, Bob and Chris went fishing a few times together, everyone decided that Bob would be perfect to step in as Chris’ new Big Brother. Bob talked it over with his wife and children, went through the Big Brothers Big Sisters application process, and Judy happily approved the new match. At Jason’s send-off party before his deployment, Chris and Judy were there, Bob and his family were there, and Justin made a surprise appearance too! Jason was able to introduce his Big Brother from years ago to his own Little Brother, and the image of all three standing together warms my heart and makes me grateful beyond measure.

I am grateful to Justin for being the first pebble skipping into the water, a high school student who volunteered every Friday evening for a year and half, offering his time and friendship to a child in his community. Little did he know that this child would pay it forward years later, and would do so with such heart and commitment to his own mentee. Now that Bob has stepped up to keep the momentum going, we know that Chris continues to be cared for and supported. Thank you Justin, Jason and Bob!

Chris and BobWe also thank Judy for being the solid and loving foundation for Chris at home, and Chris for going with the flow and being a fantastic Little Brother! In another heartwarming turn, Chris’s entire class at Newton Elementary School created a care package with letters from each student to send to Jason overseas. We all send our gratitude and good wishes to Jason for a safe journey ahead. When he returns from deployment next year, we know that Jason, Bob and Chris will have lots of fun on fishing expeditions together, and maybe they’ll even toss some stones into the water, and see how far they go…

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, we have been making high-quality, long-lasting mentoring matches for 50 years, and we thank all our Bigs and Littles, both past and present! You show us that one seemingly small act can have a BIG ripple effect, and we can’t wait to see what happens next?

Jessie Cooley has worked in the Mentoring field for over a decade.

My Turn, Danielle Letourneau-Therrien, Executive Director

 

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

March 19, 2017 Greenfield Recorder

There is a lot going on in the world right now, and a lot of people are searching and engaged, looking for ways to give back, ways to find meaning. It feels good, but it is also daunting. One could spend all their free time worrying about hunger, drug and alcohol addiction, wounded or homeless veterans, children and families who are homeless or need food and stability. It can be overwhelming to even know where to start, how to begin to make change.

Start at home. Franklin County and the North Quabbin area is one of most beautiful parts of America, complete with amazing rivers, beautiful hills, hiking, skiing (both kinds!), the magnificent Quabbin, and several prestigious centers of academia, complete with ivy-covered architecture. We have farms, county fairs and fresh food. I saw a real-life bald eagle just the other day. It was amazing. I love it here. But, among this beauty we also have poverty. Franklin County and the North Quabbin region continue to experience extremely high levels of poverty, especially compared to other parts of Massachusetts. For example, Greenfield, the county seat and three times as populous as any of its neighbors, has a poverty rate of just over 26%, compared to 15% state-wide, according to 2013 census data. The numbers for children are even more striking; 31 % of children in Greenfield live in poverty, compared to 16% of children across Massachusetts. Last year, 73% of the 167 children served by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County were living either at, near, or below poverty, and recently we have seen an increase in the number of children with an incarcerated parent, or who have witnessed drug or alcohol addiction at home. Our magnificent region covers over 800 square miles, yet we have vast areas where one cannot reach public transportation, and where it is easier to access drugs than it is to access the internet. We are right here in the most rural and impoverished part of the state, and children bear the brunt of it.

When you do not know how to make sense in the world, roll up your sleeves and join your neighbors by volunteering for a United Way Day of Action, or put on your boots and wade in for the Source to Sea Cleanup of those spectacular rivers, or, if you have the means, write a check to the Food Bank or the Women’s Fund or NELCWIT or Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County. Our local programs require $250,000 a year to keep our doors open, and this funding is provided locally, by our own community. Though we are part of the large 100-plus year-old network of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the support we get from that affiliation is not financial. We rely on United Way, a few other grants, and by local individuals and local business partners. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County saw a 15% increase in the number of Big/Little matches we were able to support from 2015 – 2016, despite about $50,000 less in revenue from the previous year. Even though we are an organization reliant on volunteers, it is essential that those volunteers and the children and families they are associated with are supported by paid trained professionals. For every dollar invested in effective mentoring programs like BBBS, there is a return of $2.72, including projected increases in lifetime earnings gained by leading at-risk youth down the path to become productive adult citizens, as well as dollars saved through reduced juvenile delinquency and crime, improved school attendance, higher high school graduation rates, along with the lowered risk of youth involvement in risky behaviors such as drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

You can also become a mentor. Become a “Big” to a child who needs one. We know that children with mentors are better able to navigate the negative risk factors that we see. In fact, our data shows that mentored children are less likely than their peers to use drugs, to begin using alcohol, and they do better in school. They have better relationships with their parents, with teachers and with their friends.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County is celebrating 50 years in 2017! Our theory of change is that matching children facing adversity with screened and supported, caring Bigs can create better futures for the children involved, including, but not limited to, better relationships, decreased likelihood of risky behaviors, and an improved attitude towards school. The greatness of the relationship is created by the joy each pair finds in their shared activities, and is made stronger by the careful, ongoing, professional support we offer here locally, at our office. This leads to measurable change where the futures of Littles are improved and each child has a greater chance of success in becoming a caring, engaged citizen, reaching their highest potential in a safer and secure world. And you can do that right here, in your neighborhood, where you can see eagles. You can make change. This is how we work together for a better world.

Danielle Letourneau-Therrien is the Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County

Our agency is based in Greenfield and serves all of Franklin County plus the North Quabbin towns of Athol, Royalston, Petersham and Phillipston.

My Turn, Jennifer Webster, Program Services Supervisor

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh

April 7, 2017 Greenfield Recorder

Mentoring works. It’s not just a slogan or a catch phrase, it’s the truth.

Have you had mentors at some point in your life? How did they impact you? Did they listen to you, support your dreams, encourage you to work harder? Did they build your confidence or help you change your entire trajectory?

Research shows that having a mentor positively impacts a child’s life. To most that is not a radical finding, it makes sense if you give it some reflection. But what exactly is so powerful about having someone to look up to?

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County, and I am honored to be a part of the celebration. During my time here I’ve witnessed many thoughtfully planted seeds of compassion blossom into something beautiful for a struggling child. I’ve seen the “above and beyond” type of kindness help build a whole new world of self-worth. I’ve seen a volunteer put great thought into how to support their “little” through something difficult and I’ve seen forever bonds created. However, it’s one of the simplest acts that still surprises me more than any other; the act of just showing up.

As the program supervisor part of my job is to enroll and train volunteers, I ask applicants to tell me about their mentors. I ask them to think about what specifically these individuals did that showed them they were loved, supported and important. How did they show they cared? The most common answer by far is that they consistently showed up. That’s it. Mentoring isn’t about spending money or being perfect in your own life. It’s about consistently showing up for someone you care about. Volunteers often surprise themselves when they realize how emotional they feel describing the impact a mentor had on their life as they reflect on why they want to pay that forward. The psychology behind it all is complex and involved, but the bottom line is pretty basic. People feel more secure in themselves and the world they are navigating when they have someone to count on, trust in and look up to. In fact, it can be life changing. It is life changing, because mentoring works.

Maya Angelou once said, “In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person.”

From the child who beamed with pride because her Big Sister was coming to her school play, to the boy who was giddy because of all the little things he had in common with his new Big Brother, to the siblings whose school attendance dramatically improved because attendance was tied to the BBBS after school program. I hear these types of stories every day and I know I’m helping make a difference.

I deeply believe in this work. I preach it, I advocate for it, I value it. But it wasn’t until very recently, when someone finally asked me those same questions, that I realized I live it too. I’ve had a few mentors at different points in my life, but the greatest impact for me has been my Dad. I didn’t get to spend as much time with him while growing up as I wanted to, but his mentoring still had a profound effect on me. Watching my Dad navigate the world has helped shape me into who I am today. He is a helper, a motivator and a man of his word. His grounded attitude, his powerful work ethic and his deep respect of others are parts of my Dad I truly admire. As a teenager, I often loved his frequent words of wisdom; “All things in moderation.” “Keep your nose to the grindstone.” “You can be anything you want, you just have to work for it” and the always helpful “Nothing good happens after midnight” were among my favorites.

Now that I am a parent, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help my boys be their best selves. I worry about how they will navigate the world and what support they will have along the way. Once in a while, when I find myself in a teachable moment, I notice that I sound a bit like my Dad, and I feel hopeful, even proud. And then I remember every child deserves to feel hopeful and proud. Every child deserves to feel important and cared about. And every child deserves to have someone consistently show up for them. This is what Big Brothers Big Sisters strives to give to as many children as possible, and we cannot do it alone. Mentoring is a community effort. We love what we do and we love the community we belong to because, frankly, there’s so much caring in this community. Franklin County has spent the last 50 years role modeling its commitment to its youth by generously supporting agencies like Big Brothers Big Sisters and we are so grateful for that support. I can only hope we are still here in another 50 years, continuing to provide children in our community with consistent, loving supportive mentors. Because mentoring works.

Jennifer Webster is the program services supervisor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County.