Just down Queen Street and past the Chatham-Kent Public Library in downtown Chatham, you’ll come across a building painted partially in bright purple with white footprints leading towards the back.
That’s where you’ll find the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Chatham-Kent office, where Amanda, Paige, and Holly work.
When you walk in, you’re greeted with more colour, both on the walls and above each office door. It’s an inviting space, with friendly staff and photos of matches on the walls.
This is where Littles are matched with Bigs, and lifelong relationships are created.
Casework Program Manager Amanda Clark says Big Brothers Big Sisters is a program that matches young people aged 6-16 with an adult mentor from their community. Each week, a Big Brother or Big Sister will spend time with their Little by going to the movies, talking a walk, attending an event run by BBBS, or any number of other activities.
According to their website, “Many young people find themselves in vulnerable situations and facing adversities such as mental health issues, family violence, identity issues, or poor living conditions, which put these youth at risk of not reaching their full potential. With the guidance and support of a mentor, these risks can be avoided, and these young people can gain the confidence to achieve more – higher incomes, happier lives, more contributions to their communities”
Holly Larivée, who is the Community Based Mentoring Coordinator, says although the commitment for a Big is just a couple hours each week for a year, many matches continue for much longer, and well past the end of the program.
“Chatham-Kent has some of the longest-standing matches in all of Canada. Some have lasted for a decade or more. I’ve heard stories of the Big being part of the Little’s wedding, or some catch up and get coffee every once in a while.
Paige Glasier, the Group and School Based Mentoring Coordinator, has been a Big Sister for the past 5 years, and her Little Sister has become a big part of her life.
“Just recently we went out for a walk for about an hour and we had a really good conversation about what’s new in her life. Even short visits and something as simple as a walk is huge for Littles”
Amanda says that the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely impacted their work and the number of matches that are being made in the community.
“What we’re seeing right now is not a large number of children and youth coming to us, and I think there’s a fear that things aren’t open anymore or that these services aren’t available anymore. We’ve been reaching out to schools and community organizations and getting instant feedback about which kids could use our services.”
Combined with the changes in schools, Holly says the need for a mentor may be greater than ever.
“Kids aren’t as free to move throughout the school to find their favourite teachers or mentors, or they’re learning from home away from the people that they used to interact with at school”
She says they expect to see a large number of Littles joining the program, but that means there’s an even greater need for Bigs, which were already in short supply.
In communities outside Chatham like Dresden and Blenheim, staff say there is a disproportionate number of Littles who need a mentor and the number of volunteers who come forward to help.
“There are Littles who have been on waitlists for years because there haven’t been any volunteers from those areas come forward. It’s not uncommon for a Big from Chatham to be matched with a Little from a smaller community, but it’s easier to spend time together and connect when they’re from the same area”
Though they were planning to do more outreach in the smaller communities, COVID-19 put a stop to that earlier this year.
After managing through the early weeks and months of the pandemic, they’ve shifted their focus back to finding volunteers in the rural areas.
Holly says that anyone who is interested in being a Big Brother or a Big Sister is screened, trained, matched, and then supported during the mentorship, which is a commitment of just one year.
The process is very similar for a child who would like to participate in the program – this involves a pre-screening done on the Big Brothers Big Sisters website, followed by an in-home visit.
Once the match is made, the Big Brother or Big Sister will arrange time each week to connect with their Little.
Big Brothers Big Sisters also has a number of other programs available, from in-school mentoring to group mentoring.
To get involved or to learn more about them, visit their website here.United Way of Chatham-Kent helps support Big Brothers Big Sisters in a number of ways through donations. If you’d like to make a donation to support this and other children and youth programs, you can do so here.