Nicholas Hogan of Richmond never realized how much volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Richmond & Tri Cities could impact his life until he met 11-year-old Gabriel. “He is one of the smartest and most talented kids I have ever known,” Hogan says of his little, or mentee.
“His passion for sports and outdoor activities are to be expected at this age, but what really sets him apart is his enthusiasm for his church and for his fellow humans.”
Last year when Gabriel was baptized, he asked Hogan and his wife to attend the baptism. The service was in Portuguese so the couple was given headphones for the translations.
“As the mass progressed, we were able to sit together and he translated the entire service for us, from Portuguese to English,” Hogan says. “When it was time for him to be baptized, he asked us to come up on stage to be a part of his family experience as he was dunked in the baptismal font. I could tell his mother and his friends were very glad that my wife and I were present to share in that experience with him and he mentioned that my presence there was extremely important to him.”
Hogan, who has been volunteering for the organization for ten months, hopes the can provide a “blueprint for Gabriel to become a good man. I hope he watches how I act and understands how to be a good citizen and how to treat others with respect.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters, the nation’s largest donor and volunteer supported mentoring network, has been operating in Richmond for fifty-one years and was started with the help of S. Buford Scott and the Richmond Jaycees. “They saw the need for kids to have positive role models and experience new activities,” says the organization’s executive director, Ann Rohde Payes.
The organization creates one-on-one mentoring relationships for kids facing adversity.
“We meet with kids in their communities, as well as at schools and community centers,” Payes says. “We serve kids with communitybased matches where Littles (mentees) and Bigs (mentors) enjoy activities together, from going to a baseball game to cooking dinner to visiting a museum.”
It also serves kids with site-based matches where Bigs and Littles meet weekly during school or at an afterschool program. “All of our matches help kids to spark new interests, avoid risky behaviors, envision a positive future, and create trusting relationships with adults,” Payes says.
The organization has approximately 700 volunteers over the course of the year but the need for volunteers continues to rise. “In the metro Richmond area, more than 36,000 kids could benefit from our services,” Payes says. “We have more than 300 children on our waiting list.”
Hogan learned about the organization at work and is now a passionate volunteer.
“I feel like you have to understand how good you have it,” he says. “When you look deep down and understand the advantages and capabilities at our disposal, to not give back is short-sighted and selfish. We need to get involved in any way that our talents allow. Volunteering is vital to helping ensure that we leave our community better than when we found it.”
Melanie Demaree of Richmond started volunteering as a Big Sister last year. She and her 12-year-old little sister meet each week. “We like to joke about the fact that she is my little sister because she is in fact five inches taller than me,” Demaree says.”She is in the sixth grade and is a very good student. She especially enjoys science and reading, so I try to encourage that with some of our activities.”
The two use their time together to find all kinds of happy diversions, from baking cookies and shopping for a costume at the thrift store to attending a children’s theater production and visiting the Science Museum of Virginia. “A lot of things that she and I have done together have been firsts for her, which is really cool for me to see,” Demaree says. “Our very first outing was going ice skating. We ended up starting off with something she had never done before and was a little nervous about.”
The 12-year-old told Demaree that one of her personal goals is to be more active and healthy and Demaree has tried to help her work on that goal by walking and taking exercise classes at the gym. “I also have tried to teach her a little about good nutrition and healthy cooking,” Demaree says. “I’ve gotten her to try some new foods like mushrooms, squash, and pumpkin and showed her recipes that are very healthy.”
She hopes the 12-year-old learns through their association that she has the potential to do anything she wants to do. “I know that she aspires to go to college and I hope that I can continue to encourage her and show her that this is incredibly possible,” Demaree says.
The organization tries to match mentors and mentees with similar interests. “The beauty of Big Brothers Big Sisters is that it is so individualized,” Payes says. “Activities can be anything you can think up from fishing to painting to going to the library.Our restrictions all revolve around child safety. We limit sleepovers and we make sure kids are always in the line-of-sight. We encourage public places for activities.”
Most of the children served by the organization are located in the East End and more generally, in the City of Richmond, as well as in the Tri-Cities.Kids who need mentoring may come from single-parent homes, live in poverty or have an incarcerated parent. “We also take kids with a variety of other needs,” Payes says. “Recently we matched a [hearing] girl with deaf parents who wanted their daughter to have more conversational practice with adults and thought having a [hearing] Big Sister would give her the perfect opportunity.”
Social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, and friends often refer kids to the organization or parents may call asking for a Big Brother Big Sister for their child. “More than three-quarters of our requests for mentors come from parents of boys,” Payes says. “Single moms frequently want the positive role modeling that a Big Brother can provide. We have a mismatch of supply and demand. Only one-quarter of our available mentors are men and men have a lot to share.”
What does it take to be a Big? Volunteers must be age 18, fill out an application, go through an interview, and take part in the organization’s five-point background check process. “The whole process typically takes about six to eight weeks,” says Payes.
Sarah Lockwood of Henrico, a recent graduate of James Madison University, was paired with her little sister, 11-year-old Destiny last year. The two go to the park, watch movies, and do arts and crafts together. For Lockwood, each visit helps her revisit her own youth. “Sure I try to be a good role model, but more than anything, I’m a playmate at the park,” she says.
Mentoring a youngster can be challenging but the experience is something that Lockwood enjoys and appreciates. “When I’m spending time with Destiny, I’m often challenged – whether answering difficult questions or catching her in tag – but nothing beats the hug at the end of the day,” she says. “It feels good to think you’re having a positive effect on a young person’s life. And it’s important to me because it means staying connected with the child in me and also hopefully being a role model to Destiny. She teaches me just as much as I teach her.”