Lasting impact and friendship at Big Brothers and Sisters
by Lilianne Fuller
What started out as friendship in 1903 has today developed into something much bigger – Big Brothers Big Sisters International. The non profit organization is the world’s largest volunteer and donor-based mentorship program. It has agencies in 15 countries throughout the world.
The seeds of the Big Brothers movement were sown when Cincinnati businessman Irwin F. Westheimer befriended and mentored a young boy. In 1904, Ernest Coulter grew the movement by obtaining 39 volunteers who agreed to befriend one boy each. By 1912 there were reports of similar activities in 26 cities throughout the United States, and Big Sisters was formed in 1917. Working independently of each other, Big Sisters and Big Brothers merged in 1977, forming Big Brothers Big Sisters of America with 357 agencies. Canada has 110 agencies.
Big Brothers and Sisters employed a model in which an adult male or female (a Big) is paired with a boy or a girl between the ages of 6 and 18 (a Little). For a year or sometimes more the partnership would continue with the Bigs acting as role models to their Littles while participating in fun and educational activities.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Langley, formed in 1974, and has introduced additional mentoring programs to the traditional model, to accommodate societal changes. “We found that children were being missed at the community level and this was one of the reasons we started to employ school-based mentoring programs,” says Associate Executive Director Roslyn Henderson.
One of these school-based programs is the Go Girls program, a free group mentoring program for girls ages eight to 14. Go Girls promotes active living, balanced eating, and positive self-image. The after school sessions are held once a week for two hours over eight weeks. The groups are facilitated by volunteer mentors like Breanna, a 17-year-old high school student. As a Big Sister, it’s her job to create a fun and safe environment for the girls.
As facilitator, Breanna helps create a safe space where the girls can talk about issues they may not feel comfortable sharing with other adults. “We have group discussions that allow the girls to ask questions and tell stories about issues they may be having,” Breanna explains. She highly recommends the program to anyone considering community service. “It is such an amazing experience. It really feels like you are making a difference in these girls’ lives and it’s like having a bunch of awesome little sisters!”
For the boys, Game On! is a similar program, providing information and support to make informed choices about a range of healthy lifestyle practices. Another school-based program provides young people with an adult role model and a friend to share the experiences of growing up. For an hour a week within the school grounds, mentors meet with their mentee and engage in activities such as board games or crafts.
In 2016 the Langley agency served 420 children through their mentoring programs. In addition the agency reports there are currently 60 matches in place based on the traditional Big Brother Big Sister model.
There is a constant waitlist for boys and girls, with 33 children currently waiting for a big brother or big sister. “We also have an unlimited number of kids who could be matched in our in-school mentoring program,” Henderson says. “We are actively involved in almost 30 Langley schools with many others asking for programs.”
Henderson says the volunteer experience is very rewarding. “Our volunteers share with us that they get just as much out of these friendships as their little brothers and sisters,” she said. A past volunteer, Sharon Newbery says: “I feel the volunteers receive as much as they give, if not more.”
Big Brothers and Sisters have made an important impact on people’s lives for over 100 years. “Every day we hear amazing stories about the friendships that are created through these programs and how much they mean to the children, volunteers and families,” shares Henderson.
To volunteer in Langley, contact Big Brothers and Sisters at 604-530-5055 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find other agencies in the Lower Mainland, visit bigbrothersbigsisters.ca. The website contains a search engine that by using your postal code you will be directed to an agency near you.