Eleven year old Alex Richardson is the only boy in his family. With one sister and several cousins, all of whom are girls, he was craving a bit more of a male presence in his life. In March 2009 the Big Brothers Big Sisters programme matched him with Gerardo Ochoa, a 47-year old professor of medicine at SMU, and now the two of them meet every weekend and spend time swimming, snorkelling or watching movies. The two clearly share a genuine bond.
“I make him laugh,” said Alex, his arm around his Big Brother. “We make each other laugh.”
The Big Brothers Big Sisters programme matches children (Littles), aged four to 14, with mentors (Bigs) who share similar interests.
“The purpose of the matches is to provide one-on-one positive mentoring relationships for children who need it,” explained Lois Kellyman, executive director of the programme. “Littles come from single parent homes, homes with two parents, some are in homes without parents....you often find that children just need somebody else to talk to.”
There are children from a wide variety of backgrounds in the programme. Some are put forward by teachers, others are enrolled by parents, and some may come to the programme of their own accord, after seeing friends enjoying the company of a mentor.
In the case of Miyah and D’Monte Seymour, it was their mother who put them into the programme.
“My daughter is going through her teenage years right now,” explained Miyah’s mother. “She’s a bit of a challenge for me. If she doesn’t have a mentor it’s going to be her peers, her colleagues mentoring her, which I don’t think are the best mentors for her. I wanted to find someone with the right qualities who could fit in where I don’t fit in.”
Miyah has been matched with her Big for around six months now and is always eager to get to their meetings. Her younger brother, however, is still waiting for a match.
This is the problem that Big Brothers Big Sisters is currently struggling with. There is a shortage of mentors, especially male mentors.
“We have around 20 matches right now, but we also have 22 children that are unmatched and are waiting for the right mentor,” Kellyman said.
Mentors equally come from all walks of life and all nationalities. They do not need to have previous experience with children or specific qualifications.
“We look for people who love children, who are fun, who are responsible and who are good role models,” said Kellyman.
“An old slogan for the programme was ‘Spend time with me, not money on me’,” added Tony Ritch, chairman of the board. “And that is the essence of the programme. In terms of activities there are no limits, whether it’s swimming, boating, fishing or going to a football match. It could be something as fundamental as homework. It’s about the quality of the relationship and finding those things that are going to make a difference.”
There are no set activities in the programme but organisers try to match Littles and Bigs based on similarity of interests.
Mentors can sign up for either the school-based or the community-based programme. The school-based programme involves Bigs visiting Littles in school, during the lunch hour, for an hour each week. The community programme requires a commitment of around two hours per week, and mentors and children can meet at weekends or in the evenings and pursue any number of activities. Group activities are also organised regularly for both matched and unmatched children, and volunteers who may be unable to commit to the mentoring programme can always get involved in these events.
Although traditionally the programme has matched boys with male mentors and girls with female mentors, the board will consider female mentors for boys in some cases. They will also be introducing couple mentoring in the near future, whereby a couple can share the responsibility and provide support to one another as well as to their Little.
The priority of Big Brothers Big Sisters is always the wellbeing of the children involved. For this reason, mentors are carefully screened before joining the programme: they must provide police clearances, character references, go through an interview process and also attend a training workshop.
“It’s a lengthy but detailed process we go through to make sure we get the right people in the programme to create a match that is going to last,” he added. “It’s great to have mature, responsible adults, but it’s also about finding a level of compatibility. Matches need to be fun.”
Mentors are asked to commit to a match for a minimum of one year and throughout the duration of the match the board monitors their progress and all parties - Bigs, Littles and parents - receive ongoing case management support.
Although change doesn’t happen overnight, mentoring relationships are undoubtedly beneficial to children. It provides children with an older person, who is not a parent, that they can talk to and maybe confide in, and this relationship may have wider repercussions in the children’s lives. “Once a child starts to work with a role model, their behaviour may improve, not only at social events but at home and in school. You can see that they handle situations more calmly. They become better children in general,” Kellyman said.
Although the programme is designed to benefit children, the mentors also get a great deal out of it.
“Connecting with these kids gives us a chance to build a stronger community,” said Ritch. “Connecting one on one, whether through a couple of hours at a social event or through mentoring – you know you have a direct impact on someone’s life. You just cant put a price on that.”
For Natasha Wellfare, mentoring has also allowed her to gain a better understanding of the local community.
“I felt I was not coming into much contact with the local community. Particularly as a teacher, I was only being exposed to other expat families and children,” she said. “What this has enabled me to do is get to know a Caymanian family and learn a bit more about their lives.”
For others, like Ochoa, being involved in the programme is the best incentive to get out and pursue different activities.
“Alex keeps me energised,” says Ochoa. “It means I get out and do things with him every week. If I wasn’t here with him today I would be lying on the couch at home watching movies. We have a lot of fun together.”