Students, alumni mentor youth in Big Brothers Big Sisters program

Lex Treinen/Sun Star Reporter
May 1, 2012

Janice Smith and Amelia pose for a photo during their museum outing. Janice and Amelia have been paired as big and little by the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization. Michelle Strehl/Sun Star.

You might see them bowling or playing air-hockey at the Wood Center, or meet them at the movie theater or museum. They are the 33 UAF student and faculty volunteers of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and though the activities these big brothers” do with their “little brothers” might sound like a pleasant afternoon with friends, they are making a real difference.

“It’s such an important role,” said Joe Hayes, a former Alaska state legislator who is now serving as executive director of the UAF Alumni Association, “It’s very rewarding.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska is the local branch of the national non-profit organization. Their goal is simple: to help children, and the community, by matching kids ages six to 18 with older role models who are willing to give a few hours of their month.

The obligations to the volunteers are minimal: after passing a background check, the volunteer, known as a “big,” should meet with his or her “little” for two to four hours per month. Other than that, the volunteers have the opportunity to receive training on topics such as dealing with ADHD or a grieving child.

The benefits are rewarding: children matched with a volunteer are 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 52 percent less likely to skip school, and 33 percent less likely to hit someone at school,  according to a 1995 study by Public/Private Ventures, a national research organization.

Volunteering also offers rewards to the volunteers themselves. The program offers a “hands on, front-line experience,” for volunteers, according to Rick Hinkey, director of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska, Fairbanks Program. He sees the program as a perfect fit for all students, particularly those interested in education. “It’s an education in itself,” he said.

One volunteer is Janice Smith, an elementary education junior and the big of Amelia, a fifth grader at Wood River Elementary. The two usually meet once per week for an hour or two.

“It’s fun,” Amelia said at the UA Museum of the North cafe prior to visiting the exhibits. “Once we went bowling, once we went home and colored.”

Smith considers meeting with her little “relieving,” because “you get to hang out and connect with kids,” she said.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program provides opportunities for children like Willie to spend quality time with an adult like Joe. Michelle Strehl/Sun Star.

As a long time program volunteer, Hayes usually spends much more than the required two to four hours per month with his little brother Willie, a third grader born in Seattle who now lives in Fairbanks with his grandfather and sister.

The pair meet for two or three hours twice per week to take off some of the burden from Willie’s grandfather. They often hang out around campus, playing air-hockey, bowling or watching movies at the theater.

The Alaska branch of Big Brothers Big Sisters currently matches nearly 900 pairs, 148 of which are in Fairbanks. Fairbanks Program director Hinkey would like to see that number increase to 500. Lack of volunteers is the major obstacle to expanding, he said. There are about 80 littles waiting to be matched, but only about half as many bigs in the process of clearing the application progress.

Funding is also a problem, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska, Fairbanks Development Director Laura Wilson. Federal funding for the program is increasingly scarce. Training and administration costs money.

Wilson also serves as a big, but young adults and college students might find the experience all the more rewarding, she said.

“They look up to students more than they do to a 43-year-old mom like me,” she said. It is also a break from the fast-paced stressful life of a college student.

“When so much these days is focused on moving forward and on studies, it’s an amazing feeling to spend some time with kids,” she said, “When my little would run over and give me a hug, it makes my day.”

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