By Doug Maine
Between 175 and 187 Latino children are on a waiting list for mentors with Hartford-based Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, which serves 111 of the state’s 169 cities and towns.
“The majority are young boys,” said Vanessa Gervais, co-chairman of NBBBS’ Latino Advisory Council, and the need is critical. She says she has heard from her co-chairman Jason Rojas that there is a crisis with Latino boys, with nothing constructive to do and increasing crime, particularly during the summer months.
Dealing with youths who are “at-risk” is not new for NBBBS, said Brian Kelly, the organization’s director of marketing. Such children haven’t been in trouble but may live in dangerous neighborhoods, not be sufficiently supervised by adult family members, at home alone much of the time, or are being raised by siblings or grandparents. Without guidance, they could too easily end up dropping out of school, become sexually active at a young age or get involved in crime.
Most of the children waiting for mentors, Latino and otherwise, live in the state’s urban areas, such as Waterbury, New Britain, Bristol, Meriden, Wallingford, Willimantic and Hartford, Lisa Hanggi, director of programs for the organization said.
“One of the challenges we’ve had is to get into the Latino community and getting them to buy into the organization and let them know how Big Brothers Big Sisters can help their family,” Kelly said.
While more than 70 percent of the children waiting for a “big,” or mentor, are boys, just three out of 10 volunteer inquiries come from men. African-American and Latino boys comprise a disproportionate percentage of the children served by the program, but getting enough male mentors is often a challenge.
The advisory council is charged with recruiting Latino mentors but she does not believe the challenge of finding adults willing to be mentors is limited to Latinos or African-Americans. “We all need a sound role model, but I think the need is most prevalent among Latino boys,” Gervais said.
The council has addressed numerous employee groups, including some whose members are mostly Latino.
For Latinos and others, “I think the concern is the commitment with their work schedules. They want to make sure they can commit 100 percent,” she said. “We’re living in a world that’s a microwave world. Everything is done now. We have so many pressing needs.”
Even though a big is only asked to commit to spending 6-10 hours per month for a year with their “little,” potential mentors realize just how devastating it would be for the child if they had to cancel plans, she added.
“I think we’re a culture when we commit to something, we want to commit fully,” Gervais said. Not all of the mentors would necessarily have to be Latino or speak Spanish. “If we have a market that’s diverse, we’re not going to turn away mentors,” she said.
In the council’s outreach efforts, “we have an amazing, amazing recruiter who has a tremendous network that she has tapped into very successfully,” Gervais said. That recruiter, Maria Castillo, a part-time NBBBS staff member, “has been very, very dedicated to this. Because I work full-time, we strategize almost daily. She’s willing to meet with me in the early hours of the morning,” before work. Gervais also takes time off from work to make presentations with Castillo.
“She was mentored as a child. She sees the value of what Big Brothers Big Sisters does,” Gervais said.
The stakes extend beyond the Latino community, she added.
“The children that we’re mentoring are going to be our future public employees, civil servants, politicians,” Gervais said. People need to “realize it’s an investment in our future, even if they’re not our children.”
Spending time with a big gives children the opportunity to know someone who may have grown up in circumstances similar to their own and made something out of their life, she said. Even adults with children of their own can be a big and make a difference even spending a little time each month with a youth.
“It’s almost like preventive medicine,” expanding children’s understanding of their possibilities as adults, motivating them to escape the cycle of poverty, Gervais said. “Poverty doesn’t have a race. Individuals are finding themselves working multiple jobs to sustain themselves and their families. It’s not necessarily a Hartford issue or a Latino issue.”
About 80 percent of the youths mentored by NBBBS are from single-parent families, but it’s not a requirement, said Hanggi.
Some of the boys who would benefit from mentoring even come from two-parent families, “but they may need extra attention. They may have siblings,” and many parents want to make sure that their children have opportunities that they didn’t have, Gervais said.
State employees have a special incentive to become mentors with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Those who mentor for a year and meet all of NBBBS’s requirements for a year earn a 40-hour paid vacation, she said.
NBBBS has helped many vulnerable youths
NBBBS’s special efforts to better engage Hispanics are its Latino Mentoring Program and Latino Advisory Council.
Besides the best known program that matches bigs and littles, NBBBS has programs that are community-based, one based at a school in Windham, one for the children of the incarcerated called COMET, a program for state employees and one that offers mentoring opportunities to senior citizens.
Matched on the basis of common interests, “children and their mentors do all sorts of things,” Hanggi said. Most importantly, they build a relationship.
“We try to abide by the preferences of the child and family. Some say it doesn’t matter what the culture or language of the mentor is. Others say they definitely want a Latino male mentor,” she said.
“Another misconception is people think they need to have a special degree in early childhood education to be a mentor. You just have to care about kids and be willing to share their life experience, whatever it is,” Kelly said.
After a match is made, the “big” and “little” aren’t left on their own to figure things out. NBBBS’s trained staff regularly monitors and evaluates matches to make sure things are going well.
“We work very closely with all three parties, so at the end of the process we can say there’s a good fit,” Kelly said. “We have match-support coordinators who contact you a certain number of times, and they’re always available to you. We urge mentors to contact them. We don’t want them to do this on their own.
“One of the big things mentors want to know are ‘what do we do with the kids,’” and many worry that being a mentor would be expensive, he said. But NBBBS can suggest many activities that are low-cost or even free. The organization frequently receives donations of tickets for Rock Cats games, movies, plays at Hartford Stage and Hartford Symphony concerts, among others, and passes those along to bigs and littles.
NBBBS also has made alliances with area groups, including the Flying Club at Hartford’s Brainerd Field airport, enabling youths who may have never been up in any kind of plane the opportunity to go up in small planes and learn about avionics, Kelly said.
“They’ve seen plays and movies, but how many of them have seen the inside of an airplane? They get a huge kick out of that,” he said.
New energy, enthusiasm
While Gervais and three other members of the 12-member council have been serving for at least four years, most are new to the council she said. “Several of them have amazing ideas and amazing relationships in the community. I think we’re setting ourselves up for success.”
Though it seemed for awhile that doors weren’t opening for the council, 16 young adults expressed interest in becoming mentors at a recent meeting with one company’s employees, she said.
Mentors are trained by NBBBS regarding safety issues, and do’s and don’ts, using guidelines developed over the course of more than a century by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, which was founded in 1904. (NBBBS was founded in Middletown in 1966.)
A mentor must be at least 21 years old to qualify for the program. To become a little, a child should be between the ages of 6 and 14, though many mentoring matches continue beyond 14, Hanggi said. Some bigs and littles become lifelong friends.
“We have had situations where bigs and littles have united years later and the big ends up being the best man for the little’s wedding,” Kelly said.