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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri uses mentorship to make a difference

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri uses mentorship to make a difference

One hour, once a week: That’s all it takes to make a positive difference in a child’s life. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri, which provides mentoring services for kids, has the results to prove it.

For the past two years, none of the kids enrolled for one year in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri organization have dropped out of school, none have had new referrals to the juvenile justice system, none have become teen parents, and there was around a 20 percent increase in kids saying they had plans to continue on to college. What’s the organization’s secret to success? It’s as simple as friendship.

“Of all the resources it takes to lift up under- served children, there is none more powerful than time from caring mentors,” says Lana Poole, president of the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri. “Big Brothers Big Sisters is more than a good idea; it is a proven approach. Local and national

studies validate that children who receive mentoring demonstrate significant gains in academic, social and behavioral outcomes.”

Originally established in 1968 as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Boone County, the organization is an affiliate of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. The organization offers services in Boone, Audrain and Randolph counties and is its own 501(c)(3) registered nonprofit.

Big Brothers Big Sisters recruits volunteers, “Bigs,” to work with at-risk youth in communities and schools as mentors through 1-to-1 matches. Once volunteers apply to become Bigs, they go through an extensive interview and background check process to match them up with “Littles” who shares common interests. Children enrolled go through an extensive interview process as well, and information is gathered from parents or teachers to determine areas of improvement they would like to see for each child.

“Matching a child who likes baseball, hiking and going to Mizzou football games with an adult who likes those same activities is more likely to be successful than matching that child to an adult who prefers doing indoor activities such as board games, baking and ballroom dancing,” says Heather Dimitt, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri. “Bigs and Littles are guided by match support specialists who assist the mentors in building supportive positive relationships with the youth so the youth may become healthy and responsible adults.”

Programs and commitment

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri has roughly 450 kids enrolled per year, with the majority of the kids coming from Boone County, specifically Columbia. This is mainly due to Columbia’s significantly larger population in comparison to Audrain and Randolph counties, which account for roughly nearly 15 percent of children enrolled.

Children eligible for the programs start as early as age 6 can be enrolled until 15 or 16 years old with eligibility to continue participating until 18.

“When there’s two parents in a family, you have two people to meet all the emotional needs of all the children,” Dimitt says. “When there’s only one parent, you have that one parent trying to meet all the emotional needs and many do not have the benefit of an extended support system to help them in meeting those needs. A lot of the parents that enroll a child in our program simply want their children to have the benefit of the positive support that another adult can provide.”

The organization has two main programs: a school-based mentoring program and a community-based mentoring program. For volunteers who may not want to commit to a full calendar year or feel uneasy being responsible for a child out in the community, the school-based program is a good starting point. All meet-ups between matches in the school-based program occur on school grounds during school hours.

“A lot of our school-based matches eventually transition to community-based and end up lasting for years, which is the ideal,” Dimitt says.

All volunteers are required to commit one hour per week for a minimum of one year to be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Forty percent of the organization’s volunteers are college students; the rest are members of the community who have a desire to help children in need.

“Almost everybody who has achieved some level of success in their life or feels confident in where they are at in life has had someone come in and help them set goals, give direction and help them stay on the right track,” Dimitt says. “I think at some point we realize that, and we want to give that to another child, and that’s a major motivation of our volunteers.”

‘You don’t have to be perfect’

The organization receives most of its funding through fundraising events it holds throughout the year and private donations. Other funding comes from contracts with the City of Columbia and other state and agency contracts that provide services for the organization, state grants and foundations, Heart of Missouri United Way, the United Way of Audrain County and the United Way of Randolph County. According to Dimitt, money is primarily used for program-related expenses, such as liability insurance, case managers and events for the matches.

The future is exciting for Big Brothers Big Sisters as it looks to add a site-based mentoring program through a partnership with the Columbia Housing authority’s Moving ahead program and Family Counseling Center. Families on the Housing Choice voucher Program will receive additional services from the Columbia Housing authority and as a part of that will be asked if they have any kids who are eligible for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. The Family Counseling Center will also provide mental health support to the families.

“We were seeing a lot more families that needed wraparound services and a lot more help than we were actually designed to support,” Dimitt says. “So we were looking toward reaching out to partners that can help us provide those all-around services.”

Dimitt believes there are three to four times more kids in Columbia still in need of mentors and encourages people who think they might not make good mentors to give it a second thought.

“When you’re a mentor, you don’t have to be perfect,” Dimitt says. “Some of the best mentors are people who may have made their own mistakes because they can help steer a kid away from making similar bad choices.”

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