Even in the idealistic world of Big Brother, Big Sister – where at-risk kids learn from volunteer role models – there are bound to be relationship glitches. That’s where Lindsey Miller comes in – she’s there to facilitate the one-on-one matches, which are typically with youth from single-parent homes in Dorchester or Roxbury. She has 100 “Big-Littles” in the Massachusetts-Bay area on her case load and is constantly on the phone, answering questions: ‘I can’t get a hold of the mom to arrange a meeting with the child.” “Is it OK to communicate with a teen via Facebook?’ “Can I hug my child good-bye or is that violating physical boundaries?” It’s Miller’s role to encourage healthy mentoring friendships that benefit kids while also ensuring volunteers have a rewarding experience. Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene spoke with Miller about her role in the one of the oldest and largest non-profit youth mentoring organizations in the region.
“Every year the requests for Big Brothers and Big Sisters grows. This year alone we expect to get over 1,500 requests from parents, schools and community agencies. We have more children on our waiting list than volunteers – this is especially true in less T accessible neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Mattapan. We work hard to make matches based on geography so that the travel time is feasible for a match. There are some misconceptions about what role a mentor fills in a child’s life. They are not tutors, therapists, or babysitters – instead they are friends. We see so much value in kids having a consistent, caring adult; someone who spends time, listens, encourages, and helps them make good choices. Here’s an example: One ‘Little’ is on the autism spectrum and talks primarily about reptiles – we were able to match him with a ‘Big’ who had a ball python as a child and so they share this passion. Another well-suited match is a child who enjoys animation and media; his volunteer adult actually works in TV. They record videos together, which nurtures and encourages the little boy’s creative side.
Consistent communication is key – relationships are a marathon and not a sprint. Often it takes children a long time to open up, but if there’s an open, trusting environment, then it’s a set-up for success. Some people say that ‘nothing works’ in reaching troubled youth but I’ve seen Big Brothers and Big Sisters be a positive influence on children’s confidence, grades, and social skills. Some volunteers worry that they are not doing exciting enough activities – just getting ice cream; playing video games; tossing a ball – but so many kids say how fun it is just to hang out and laugh with someone who cares. The little things make a big difference.”