Why do today’s kids—especially the children served by CHD’s Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Hampshire County (BBBS)—need mentors now more than ever? “One in three kids in America are growing up without a sustained, adult mentor in their lives outside of their family,” said Susan Nicastro, the program director. “A BBBS mentor can be a critical part of transformational change in a young person’s life.”
Nicastro, who began at CHD in 2021, said that she was inspired by the importance of mentoring in the lives of young people when she worked for 17 years at Partners for Youth and Disabilities (PYD), a Boston-area youth development organization that has a strong mentoring component. She was deputy director of PYD for 14 years.
BBBS makes meaningful matches between adult volunteers, known as “Bigs” and youth (“Littles” between 6 and 18), to develop positive relationships that have a direct and lasting effect on the lives of young people. “For children, the benefits of the program include the support and encouragement they receive from a nurturing relationship with a Big, improvement of peer relationships, more success in school, higher self-esteem, and involvement in the community through increased exposure to community resources,” said Nicastro.
For the Littles’ immediate families, the benefits include an increased sense of community through involvement in BBBS, and referrals by case managers for other needed services, as well as the respite derived from having their children spend time with their Bigs on a regular basis. Indeed, single parents often work long hours to make ends meet, and it can be hard for them to juggle all their responsibilities and still seek resources for outside activities for their kids.
What does it take to be a successful BBBS mentor? A mentor, according to Nicastro, provides access to people, places, and things outside their mentee’s routine environment. She said it’s important to provide mentees with access to new experiences and opportunities, which challenges them to broaden their own thinking and to consider new ideas. “The sky is the limit for activities that Bigs and Littles can enjoy together,” said Nicastro.
Typically, Bigs and Littles get together two to four days a month to enjoy activities such as hiking, rock wall climbing, kayaking, biking, making art, tossing a football, playing board games, fishing, bowling, cooking, or going to the movies. Nicastro insisted that it is the simplest moments spent together that make the biggest difference: one of the BBBS slogans is “10 minutes over pizza can last a lifetime,” and this is so true, she said, pointing out that volunteers insist the most commonplace activities are often create the most meaningful memories—taking a walk, talking about the school day, or sharing a laugh.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters national organization began in 1904, when a young New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter was concerned about seeing more and more boys come through his courtroom. He recognized that caring adults could help many of these kids stay out of trouble, so he found 39 volunteers, marking the beginning of the Big Brothers movement.
At around the same time, the members of a group called Ladies of Charity were befriending girls who had come through the New York Children’s Court. That group would later become Catholic Big Sisters. Both groups continued to work independently until 1977, when the Big Brothers Association and Big Sisters International joined forces and became Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which is now the nation’s largest donor- and volunteer-supported mentoring network. BBBS’ roots in Hampshire County began in 1975, and CHD has administered this chapter since 1995.
BBBS of Hampshire County currently has 50 active matches, with many more matches in process in the Community Engagement and Service-Learning (CESL) class at UMass Amherst. Along with our community mentoring programs, our BBBS site-based programs bring young people to college campuses once a week to meet one-on-one with their college student. These matches meet for at least three semesters, and they stay in touch virtually during college breaks.
“It is extremely valuable for Littles to have Bigs who are college students—our matches with them provide Littles with opportunities to build mentoring relationships with students, while also benefitting from exposure to local college campuses, which can inspire Littles to include college in their vision of their future,” said Nicastro. In this partnership, BBBS works closely with CESL professors and staff to offer an annual course focused on service-learning through mentoring. The course offers students to become a “Big’ and earn academic credit. In this BBBS mentoring course, students learn about relevant issues of youth development and gain effective skills being youth mentors, and deepen their understanding of mentoring through readings, writing, class discussion, sharing of personal stories. “This partnership is a high-impact way to engage students in service-learning, which combines community service with structured learning,” said Nicastro. “The academic work of the course builds a context for the mentoring relationships—exploring relevant issues of youth development, impacts of race and class on social identity, and effective mentoring relationships.”
To any potential Big who is considering being a volunteer but is hesitant about the time commitment, Nicastro pointed out the slogan of the upcoming national campaign of BBBS of America (BBBSA): “It Takes Little to Be Big.” The goal of the national campaign is to engage one million alumni, potential volunteers and donors to get involved and invest in the BBBSA mission. “The commitment isn’t enormous—there is flexibility in terms of scheduling, and matches can meet weekly or every other week for six to eight hours per month at times and places that are mutually convenient for the Big and the Little,” she said, adding that the activities are primarily informal and friendly. “I would say to anyone considering to be a volunteer that ‘being there’ consistently for a young person is a powerful investment that is well worth the time and effort.”
Thinking about volunteering as a mentor? BBBS has a growing waiting list of kids in Hampshire County hoping to be matched with “Bigs.” To sign up for a Volunteer Information Session, contact Susan Nicastro at [email protected] or 413-478-8547.