Little gestures, big effects

Big Brothers Big Sisters can transform the lives of the children and the organization's mentors.

The traditional gift for celebrating 60 years may be diamonds, but there is something infinitely more valuable than that. For youth all over Westchester County, it’s the gift of time and mentorship.

The anniversary for the Port Chester-based affiliate of the well-known youth mentoring organization Big Brothers Big Sisters of Family Services of Westchester is a celebration of futures altered, communities strengthened and meaningful connections made. 

The mentorship model matches adult volunteers (“Bigs”) with children (“Littles”) in a tried-and- true relationship that emphasizes the importance of role models in the life of a child. History has proven that Bigs can have a major effect on helping their Littles navigate life and recognize their full potential. 

“We have … adults who were ‘Littles’ years ago,” says Executive Director Valerie Brown. “And they’ll say, ‘It changed my life.’” 

In Westchester, more than 12 percent — the number is more than 23 percent in some communities — of children live in poverty.

But every year, thanks to the organization, hundreds of those children (between the ages of 7 and 17) have been paired with a companion and mentor whose one-on-one relationship with them influences the trajectory of their lives.

The Big Brother or Sister commitment is fulfilling and simple but the value received by the Littles is immeasurable. Bigs are asked to give just four hours a month and can even fold the hours into their own leisure time — playing basketball, sharing music or just chatting over an ice cream. Proof that it’s the “little” things that matter most.

Many volunteer Bigs have been beneficiaries of these relationships themselves. “They had a great role model that really helped them and they want to give back,” Brown says.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is the oldest and largest youth-mentoring program in the country with nearly 400 agencies and more that 275,000 Bigs nationwide. The longevity of the organization means its name recognition is unparalleled. Indeed, Brown adds that when volunteer candidates are asked how they’ve heard about the group, many say, “I’ve always known about it.”

The Westchester affiliate was launched in 1958 and is unusual in that it operates under the umbrella of FSW. “Out of 300 chapters, 30 of us are part of a larger agency,” Brown says. “FSW is an awesome service agency with 48 programs. What is really wonderful is we can really easily provide ancillary services,” like housing and mental health support. 

Big Brothers Big Sisters itself has a 114-year history in the United States. In 1904, New York City County Clerk Ernest Coulter began looking for volunteers to mentor the increasing number of young boys he saw paraded through his courtroom. Meanwhile, the Ladies of Charity (eventually Catholic Big Sisters) had begun doing the same for young girls. The two operated separately until 1977 when they joined forces.

Unfortunately, the long history and name recognition is not enough to drive recruitment. 

“We have had sort of a tough time with recruitment,” Brown says. “It’s typical to have boys on a wait list nationwide.” Right now, there are more than 45 boys on the wait list in Westchester County.

“It’s so interesting, because we have women volunteers and no men.” 

In July, the organization hosted a dynamic fundraising event, “The Big Game Day,” at Dave & Busters in Pelham Manor. Current and former New York Jets players were on hand to sign autographs and pose for pictures. “That was a really fun event,” Brown says. “But it did not yield one Big Brother.”

Surprisingly, she adds, these events rarely do. Volunteers report they are instead reminded about the program the old-fashioned way, through flyers and other paper postings.

“Our Bigs are a little older,” Brown says. Fifty percent of Bigs are between the ages of 48 and 60. Only a quarter are younger. Those younger volunteers usually participate in site-based (as opposed to community-based) after school enrichment programs. They come through colleges such as Manhattanville, Pace and Mercy. These programs have been successful but seldom do they translate to the community-based mentorship model. So, the organization is always looking for new ways to attract volunteers.

“We are starting a couples’ match,” Brown says. On Nov. 3, The Performing Arts Center at Purchase College will host “Big Brothers Big Sisters: The Really Big Show.” Last year, the variety show-styled event featured Jay Leno, comedian and former host of “The Tonight Show.” This year, the featured headliner will be The B-52s. 

Adults considering participation in the mentorship program are asked to make a one-year commitment to their Littles, though the average match length is about three and a half years. The organization runs extensive background checks, conducts interviews and contacts references so that the resulting match will be a success. And, Brown adds, “We have an LGBTQ program as well.”

The point folks at Big Brothers Big Sisters want to drive home is that mentorship does indeed make a difference in a child’s life, no matter how big or little.

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