by Gene Marrano
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia, which covers the Roanoke and New River Valleys, is part of a century-old organization that pairs adult mentors with young boys and girls. In the Roanoke Valley more than 100 children are seeking those mentors on a regular basis, children that often come from single parent homes. More often than not it’s a young boy who needs a Big Brother, someone to attend a ballgame with, go shopping with or to just hang out.
Funded in large part by United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters has lost some federal grants in recent years. Fundraisers, like the one coming up on March 17th help: its Bowl for Kid’s Sake at the Vinton Lanes, with teams of four encouraged to sign up. Start times for team bowling that day are at 10am, noon and 2pm.
President/CEP June House said the Roanoke Valley and New River Valley chapters merged about a decade ago to form one agency. She came to Big Brothers Big Sisters after a stint in Garden City, Kansas in 2004, took a hiatus several years later but then returned. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else but Big Brothers Big Sisters,” said House, who experienced mentoring herself as a youngster. “I feel like it made all of the difference in my life.”
Having someone show children that they can lead a happy, productive life is important said House. Growing up in eastern Kentucky, a mentor encouraged House to attend college – she was the first of her family to do so, with a father who was a coal miner and a mother who didn’t get past second grade. While some of the children in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program locally have [two] wonderful parents,” notes House, many are from single parent households or live with guardians.
In some cases a parent has been incarcerated and they live in poverty, “but we have quite a few kids that have stable, loving environments [but] they just need that extra person outside of their family [as a mentor].” Parents often recognize that their children need that support. It’s harder to recruit male mentors, although they tend to stay longer. More boys than girls need mentoring, added House.
Mentors do not need to spend lots of money or put on a show. “No cost, low cost, we really encourage that,” said House, “just spend time together.” The child mentored often becomes “part of a bigger family,” by encountering the mentoring adult’s own children. “Volunteers have a sense of extending their family,” said House, “it makes them feel good.” There’s often tickets donated for sporting events that volunteers can take advantage of as well.
In Roanoke City alone there are more than 100 requests for a mentor, who spends time every other weekend with a child. In 1999 a school-based program was created, where mentors may meet with a child for lunch or during another period during the school day. Seeing children improve academically and decreasing the levels of juvenile delinquency are major goals. “We want to [foster] healthy relationships [with] an impactful mentoring program.” Schools often identify possible subjects for mentoring to Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Mentors must pass background checks and must have time to make a commitment that can last several years. Some high profile business leaders have been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia, like Norfolk Southern CEO Wick Moorman, Roanoke Civic Center General Manager Robyn Schon and Advance Auto CEO Darren Jackson.
“Norfolk Southern is a great partner,” said House, who also singled out Roanoke City Councilman Dave Trinkle for his participation. She’s hoping to bring Roanoke City police officers on board as mentors also. “It’s a perfect fit,” noted House.
Corporate partnerships and private donations help fill the coffers, but federal funding that supported a program where children with a parent in prison were mentored was affected by budget cuts last year. “It was disappointing,” said House. That population of children will still continue to be served, and events like the bowling fundraiser on St. Patrick’s Day will help. A music DJ and free snacks will be part of the event. “It’s a lot of fun – it’s going to be a big party,” promises House.
See bigslittles.org for more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia and the March 17 Bowl for Kid’s Sake fundraising event.