Big Brothers Big Sisters helping RVA kids tackle adversity

And the organization needs a few good men to help change lives.

What comes to mind when you hear mentor?

Ann Rohde Payes, executive director of the mentorship program at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Richmond & Tri Cities (BBBSGRTC), sees hundreds of area adults helping nurture kids across the region.

But some, men especially, see cloying moments of hand holding and skipping stones on the James.

“Being a big brother or big sister isn’t necessarily a touchy-feely thing,” Payes said. “It’s not about giving the kids a lot of hugs…It doesn’t have to be, ‘Oh let’s go and get ice cream and go to the museum.'”

But that’s often the perception–a misperception that’s helped create a numerical disparity between boys in need and available male mentors. Payes said that roughly 75 percent of mentorship requests to BBBSGRTC involve boys. Yet only 25 percent of the organization’s mentors are male.1

“I think typically people see mentoring as a very nurturing relationship, and that might have some ‘feminine’ characteristics to it,” Payes said, as to why some men avoid mentoring. The other reason is that often the men that do express an interest in mentoring only want to do one-time activities. “And so we haven’t, kind of, conditioned them to be ready to take on an on-going responsibility.”

BBBSGRTC asks that each of its mentors commit to a child for at least one year. “So it’s a huge responsibility. It’s a big commitment, and we understand that,” Payes said. But in that commitment is a means for mentors to better the lives of hundreds of area kids, which is what BBSGRTC has been doing for over 50 years.

Facing Adversity

The national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization dates back to 1902, but BBBSGRTC began in the early 1960s when Richmond Jaycees, a local organization, coordinated with the national Big Brothers Big Sisters office to create a local chapter.

“Single parents were a much bigger part of the community than they had been before,” Payes said of the 1960s, when BBBSGRTC formed. “Most of the kids we serve now, and most of the kids we served then, are children of single parents.”

Mentors essentially serve in two capacities: provide children, or mentees, with a positive adult role model and also help single parents. “The mentors certainly don’t come in as a parent, but they do come in as a friend that just can take a little bit of weight off the parent’s shoulders,” Payes said.

BBBSGRTC’s mission is simple: “It’s all about helping kids facing adversity,” Payes said. Often that adversity involves living with just a single parent or in poverty. But it’s not limited to that.

“One example of a child that we’re serving: the parents are both deaf but the child is hearing, so she doesn’t have an opportunity to speak very frequently,” Payes said. “And so she needed a Big Sister so she could have more opportunities to learn her language skills. So ‘adversity’ is a pretty broad term.”

Payes said other notable mentorships included a mother who, after converting to Islam, wanted her daughter to gain a positive view of the religion from somebody in addition to her. “We were able to find the perfect person, and then the daughter was able to translate the religion into a kind of modern way, and how do you deal with that when you’re in high school when most of the people in your community are Judeo-Christian?”

While each mentee faces unique adversities, Payes said BBBSGRTC aims to do three things with each of them: increase academic success, build social skills, and create healthy lifestyles.

Children are referred to BBBSGRTC in several ways, from teachers, mental health counselors, and local agencies like the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, the Juvenile Parole System, and others.

BBBSGRTC oversees two types of mentorships. The first is on-site, or school-based, wherein mentors visit children at school. The second type of mentorship is community-based, wherein mentors typically pick up mentees at their homes, then go off to talk and do activities.

The mentee application process doesn’t just focus on the child, but on the child’s family too. “Part of this being a successful mentoring relationship is that the parent or guardian really needs to be engaged,” Payes said.

Next comes an intake phone call wherein BBBSGRTC ensures the child qualifies for mentorship. Each child must be between six and 14 years of age, live in the service area, and mustn’t have a disqualifying condition, like autism, which mentors are not qualified to handle. If the child qualifies for mentorship, an in-person interview typically takes place at the child’s home.

“Then it’s a waiting process,” Payes said, because BBBSGRTC must find what it deems the right mentor for the child. School-based mentorships are typically the quickest to fulfill. However, community-based mentorships can take one month to upwards of three years to arrange.

A few good men

“The longer end of the wait list is almost entirely boys,” Payes said. “We have a really supply-and-demand issue with our [male] mentors.” She said BBBSGRTC has upcoming plans to target men in particular. The organization will also target both men and women to mentor in the East End, which has a high overall need for mentors.

Those interested in mentoring often initiate the process by filling out an online application. “After someone submits an application, we do a very thorough background check,” Payes said. Those involve federal and state checks, one for Child Protective Services, DMV, and a personal references. There’s also an hour-long interview wherein screeners ask applicants about their family life, why they want to be a mentor, as well as gauge their personality and interests so that, when they are approved to be a mentor, they can be more harmoniously placed with a mentee.

“We have two sweet spots,” Payes said, about the typical community-based mentors. “One is younger people who are fresh out of college, possibly college students, who don’t yet have their own children,” she said. The second are “people who are empty nesters and are looking to maintain a connection to younger people in the community.” On-site school mentors are typically “working adults” in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

“I think of the beautiful things about Big Brothers Big Sisters to me is our mission is pretty narrow. It’s really focused on mentoring,” she said. “But within that we have the opportunity to take on some specific populations.”

This year, BBBSGRTC will expand its program to Norfolk. “We will exclusively be serving youth with military parents. We’ll have the opportunity to help kids whose parents are deployed and not getting the normal amount of support they might get at home.”

Payes said the organization is also considering creating programs based on specific interests, such as a sports-centric one specifically for men. Another idea in development involves taking kids to a local corporation for on-site mentoring to improve their computer and business skills.

“We are always looking for mentors,” Payes said. BBBSGRTC asks that community-based mentors spend roughly nine hours each month with their mentee, spread over any number of days. School-based mentors are asked to spend 1 hour each week during the school year.

Payes said Richmond can help BBBSGRTC in several ways. The most obvious is to donate their time to be a mentor. “We’re specifically looking for men, and we’re specifically looking for volunteers to who are willing to go to the East End of Richmond,” she said.

Richmonders can also help by donating money to the organization. BBBSGRTC does not charge for its services, but requires approximately $1,200 to support one mentorship annually, which Payes said covers the cost of background checks and the services the organizations provides. BBBSGRTC is also appreciative of businesses who offer discounts to both mentors and mentees that can be used during a joint activity.

No matter how Richmonders choose to help, BBBSGRTC uses every resource it receives to help turn a child’s story of adversity into a story of success.

photo courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters

  1. The organization only allows same-sex mentorships. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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