Got an Hour? Become a Big Brothers and Big Sisters Mentor

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CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.J. -

In an age of busy life schedules and crowded social calendars, there are children and teenagers on a waiting list looking to be mentored, encouraged and supported by adults in the Cumberland and Salem County areas.

A recent grant to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Cumberland and Salem counties encourages those who hope to shorten that distance between mentee to mentor. The OceanFirst Bank made the $5,000 award last year for the BBBS Adult School-Based Mentoring program, or ASB.

Big Brothers Big Sisters officials said that ASB is unique because it reaches students at the schools they attend. ASB allows community members to volunteer their time, through one-hour mentorship sessions during the child’s recess or lunch period at the school they attend.

“With our school-based program, it gives our volunteers and families another option for involvement,” local BBBS President Donna Bennett told SNJ Today this month. “Someone might be busy [during] the evenings or weekends.

“They are either retired or work for an employer who supports them getting involved in the community. The adult school-based program is a perfect fit for them. It is also a good fit when you have teachers who want to get more involved with students. With our model, they can get more involved.”

All mentors and school-referred children must complete an application and interview/training session to determine suitability. A variety of factors, including common interests, personalities, age, location, and life experience, are utilized to help match mentors with students.

The participating students are identified by school teachers, social workers and guidance counselors and referred to Big Brothers Big Sisters for assessment. The children may be struggling academically, emotionally, or socially when they come into the Big Brothers Big Sisters ASB program.

Adult mentors are usually asked to commit two to four hours a month and meet during the mentee’s school day. The students receive ongoing support by phone and in-person contacts made by Big Brothers Big Sisters staff members.

The relationships between the mentor, known in BBBS terms as “Bigs,” and the children mentees, known as “Littles,” are at the heart of the nonprofit. The pairing is known as a match, as the Big hopes to give the Little the attention and guidance needed in their most critical growing and learning periods.

The mission of BBBS is to provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported one-on-one relationships that endeavor to change their lives for the better. The organization has a partnership with parents/guardians, volunteers and others in the community to bring their skills to use in helping these children.

BBBS officials said that children involved in their programs are more confident, more likely to steer clear of drugs and alcohol, do better in school, get along better with their family and friends, and feel better about themselves.

On its website, Big Brothers Big Sisters said that while ASB does not involve tutoring, research has shown that 58 percent of the Littles connected with it improve their school performance, while 65 percent show higher levels of self-confidence and 55 percent exhibited a better attitude toward school.

“ASB mentorship is a great opportunity for both the child and the mentor,” Tygh Powell, director of programs for BBBS said in a statement last year. “Children get the opportunity to learn from someone they consider to be a role model, while mentors have the ability to give back by showing their Little how to lay a good foundation for their future so that they can flourish as citizens and adults.”

What can a Big and Little accomplish during lunch or recess? Bennett said that time can be consistently used to make that special connection between the mentor and mentee.

“They eat lunch together, they play cards, read books,” Bennett said. “They also talk about life experiences and they can become friends in that capacity.”

Some of the schools where Big Brothers Big Sisters has ASB mentoring programs include D’Ippolito Elementary School and Veterans Memorial Intermediate School in Vineland; Holly Heights Elementary, Silver Run Elementary, and Lakeside Middle School in Millville; Indian Avenue Elementary in Bridgeton; and Salem Middle School in Salem City.

In October, the program expanded in the current school year to Marie D. Durand School in Vineland and Broad Street Elementary in Bridgeton.

“We are happy to offer the mentorship programs at Durand and excited to witness firsthand the benefits for our students,” Durand School Vice Principal Brittney Tomlin said in a statement last October about BBBS.

“Our teachers work very hard to help students be the best academically that they can be,” she added. “The Big Brothers Big Sisters program builds on these efforts in order to make the whole child really strong. We welcome those individuals with the desire and ability to volunteer their time to help our students grow and succeed.”

Bennett said the OceanFirst grant will go to maintain the current program and possibly help expand some of their services.

“We started our program in the 1990s in Vineland,” Bennett said. “Now we have it throughout Cumberland County and Salem County.

Bennett said that it cost about $1,500 to maintain a professionally supported one-to-one mentorship, so donations made by OceanFirst and others can greatly impact those direct relationships.

“This generous grant enables us to support the children enrolled in our school programs and will have an everlasting effect in their lives,” she said.

Last year, Big Brothers Big Sisters connected 245 children with mentors in the ASB program. Bennett said, however, there still remains a shortage of mentors in the area. She said that 53 children remain on the waiting list without a Big Brother or Big Sister mentor.

“We need more mentors,” Bennett said when asked what message she would like to get out the most about the organization, which has been around since 1904.

“It has been around in the Vineland area since the 1970s and expanded throughout Cumberland County in 1982,” Bennett said. “We expanded into Salem County in 1995. We have a great need for Bigs.”

In 2014, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cumberland & Salem Counties received the Pinnacle Award for being a top performer among small agencies, just one of 330 agencies to receive the award that year. The local chapter also received the Board of the Year Award at the Big Brothers Big Sisters National Conference that year. In 2015, the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter received the Quality Award.

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