Big Brothers Big Sisters is the “oldest and largest youth mentoring organization in the United States.” In Central Ohio, the agency works on fostering “quality mentoring relationships to children and youth in need of a friend.” According to the national organization’s website, in 2004, it served more than 225,000 youth, ages five through 18, in 5,000 communities across the country, through a network of 470 agencies.
Elizabeth’s work with the agency began three years ago. Elizabeth was born and raised in Carolina, Puerto Rico. She has lived in Columbus for eight and a half years and began her work with children with the English as a Second Language Department for the Columbus Public Schools.
At that time, a colleague recruited her to develop, introduce, and expand community-based programming for BBBS especially as it referred to the Latino community. The program was still in its infancy but it quickly grew.
The site-based programs for Latino students at the schools were already in place for the most part. Community-based programs, on the other hand, needed development. These programs involve one-on-one interaction outside the classroom between the volunteer (Big Brother or Big Sister) and the child (Little Brother or Little Sister). Community-based programs posed some challenges, according to Elizabeth.
The biggest challenge, according to her, was the fact that mentoring is “a foreign concept” for many Latino parents and they sometimes fail to see the benefit to their children. It was, and continues to be, hard work making many Latino parents comfortable with the idea of their child spending time and developing a relationship with assigned “Bigs.”
Educators are very receptive to the idea of mentoring, says Elizabeth, because they understand how crucial it is to a child to have good role models. They also realize that if Latino children see other Latinos in professional roles they are more likely to stay in school and realize their potential.
As far as children are concerned, Elizabeth says they are more open to the idea of mentoring than their parents. However, sometimes it is difficult to get them to see a volunteer, a complete stranger, as a friend since most of their adult friends and role models come from within the family network.
Elizabeth says there has been great improvement over the attitude of Latino parents and families to the idea of mentoring. This is in part because the families that have participated in the programs provide a referral mechanism for other families.