Written by Peggy Faye Brown | Photography by Jose Leiva
Did you know that, in just one hour a week, you could encourage a child, enrich a life, and invest in the future? Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine (BBBS) provides mentoring opportunities to the youth of Androscoggin Country that build bonds, strengthen self-esteem, and develop dreams.
“He IS my brother,” says Jacobi, “but I’m the boss.”
Third-grade “Little” Jacobi and his “Big,” Sam Holmes, erupt into giggles in the library of Longley Elementary School in Lewiston. Delightful banter and lots of smiles abound when these two are together, whether they are playing Space Tilt, Operation, Connect Four, or reading Ant Bully, one of their favorite books.
Sam, a Bates College senior, is heading to Spain as a Fulbright scholar. They will miss each other, but will stay connected as pen pals again, just like last summer. They dive into a book about Spain, pointing out pictures and laughing together. Their joy is contagious.
Bigs and Littles commit to at least one year of weekly meetings when they sign up for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. This match was created by BBBS to give Jacobi a school-based mentor. However, it is quite evident that Sam gets a lot out of this, too.
“It is also great for me, explains Big Sam. “I get to break away from college stress and essay deadlines to come here and play for an hour. It is so rewarding to see how happy [Jacobi] is when we spend time together. Being a Big has solidified my interest in working with kids.”
Jennifer Cartmell is the Androscoggin manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine. She runs a small program at Washburn Elementary in Auburn with Bigs from Edward Little High School, and the larger Longley program, which has 34 matches. Cartmell provides training and professional support, including monthly check-ins to ensure satisfaction and safety.
“The greatest reward is watching the wonderful changes in the Bigs and Littles in positive ways,” states Cartmell. “Bigs learn patience, because Littles need time to open up and trust. Littles learn they can trust their Bigs.”
Just ask sixth grade Little, Hassan M., about his Big.
“My Big is a math whiz,” he enthusiastically shares. “If I give him a big number, he can double it immediately. It’s a fun game we play.”https://lametromagazine.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1559&action=edit#
How does he know his Big is right all the time?
Hassan M. proudly replies, “He’s NEVER wrong.”
Cartmell works closely with School Counselor Sally Nelson, coordinating the meeting schedules and monitoring the program. Nelson was once a Big while studying at USM, and so admired the role of the school counselor who managed that BBBS program that she switched her major and obtained her Master’s in School Counseling.
Nelson reflects, “My experience with BBBS has now come full circle.”
She and Cartmell wish there were enough resources to match up 100 more children. “I am asked almost daily to create a new match,” Cartmell says. “I wish there was a way for all 380 of our Longley students to be involved.”
Birds of a feather
Over at another table, a Big/Little pair work on an Avengers puzzle. This is not a quiet activity. Fred, the Bates College Big, keeps the conversation flowing. They each wear a blue headband with an animal photo attached. The Little, Hassan A., wears a parrot and Fred wears a cow. He and Fred are trying to figure out which creature is on their own headband.
After many clues from Fred, Hassan A. asks, “Am I a bird?”
“Yes, you are a type of a bird,” hints Fred, “but be more specific.”
As they each try to decipher more clues, other BBBS pairs pop into the library to start their hour together.
Cartmell and Nelson both see the immense value of BBBS in teaching “soft skills” like socialization, self-awareness, self-esteem, and confidence building.
Longley Bigs, all students from Bates College, also bring Littles their enthusiasm for learning. They often discuss mythology, art, geography, architecture, math, literature, and science during the course of their casual conversations, as evidenced by drawings in the notebooks the Littles keep.
As such, Longley Littles are very curious about college. So Cartmell determined that a field trip to Bates College was needed. This very exciting adventure now takes place each spring. Littles are filled with awe as they arrive on campus, greeted by their Bigs. They receive Bates College t-shirts (funded by TD Bank), and enjoy lunch, ice cream, and a tour of the campus. Parents tell Cartmell about how inspiring this visit is; their children set goals to study, get good grades, and go to college, too, someday.
What happens during summer or semester separations? Instead of having lonely Littles, Cartmell works diligently to keep them connected through hand-written letters. And writing letters provides practice in literacy skills.
“When I went abroad to Argentina,” said Megan Seymour, a psychology student, “my Little, Lita, and I became great pen pals.” As Megan discussed Lita, her eyes sparkled with joy. “I will save the letters from Lita forever.”
Second-grader Lita adores her Big also. She tells Megan she has “eyes like pearls” and loves spending time together playing the headband game and drawing pictures. Megan cherishes the adorable drawings that Lita makes and plans to keep them in a special scrapbook with her letters.
Megan explains, “Just being together and hearing about her day is so rewarding. Being a Big has really touched my heart. This experience will carry over to my career working with children.”
When the summer, or semester separation, is over, the reunions are amazing. Nelson accompanied a Big to his Little’s classroom for their first meeting of the school year. When the Little spotted his Big in the doorway, he leapt from his seat and into the arms of his Big, truly joyful while being picked up and spun around. Nelson had many requests from classmates to have their own Bigs that day, too!
Defenders of potential
Big Brothers Big Sisters is the oldest and largest national mentoring agency in the country. However, it rebranded its image last year, to stress the urgency of its mission. Their campaign to recruit ‘defenders of potential’ aims to attract younger and more diverse volunteers.
“If young children are matched early with a 1-to-1 mentor in a strong and enduring professionally supported relationship, this is demonstrated to have long term positive impact,” states Gwendolyn Hudson, executive director of BBBS of Mid-Maine. “Evidence shows this leads to higher aspirations, better performance in school, and long term success,” continues Hudson.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine serves seven counties, at 30 school-based sites. It expanded to Androscoggin County in 2015, and serves youth at just two sites (Washburn and Longley), due to lack of funding.
“This is all we can do with the resources we currently have,” says Hudson. BBBSMM receives no federal or state money. Funding comes from the annual Bowl for Kids’ Sake and Golf FORE Kids’ fundraisers, with additional grants from the United Way, and corporate and individual donations and sponsors.
The group is looking for more resources and community mentor volunteers, to serve more children in this county. Hudson explains, “We seek community members to serve on committees which can provide opportunities for increased funding.”
Having a wonderful mentor opens up opportunities for Littles to dream about the world and their own future.
Jacobi wants to be an architect someday and build a city. Sam spreads a happy grin and says, “You could call it Jacobi-Land!”
Jacobi doubles over in giggles but it is clear that a dream for the future has been planted in his mind, thanks to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Join a committee
(monthly meetings via conference call)
Community Engagement Committee
Program Development Committee
Bowl for Kids’ Sake Committee
Golf FORE Kids’ Sake Committee
Become a Big or Community Mentor
Host an Event to Support BBBS
Donate goods and services
“Build a Bin” – collect and donate new/gently used games and craft items