Becoming a Big Sister/Big Brother
August 5, 2007 5:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering becoming a Big Sister. I know that it's a real commitment, and I have an idea of the individual, group and school programs that are available, but I'd like to hear about your experiences as current or former Big Sisters/Big Brothers anywhere in Canada or the States. (If you were a Little Sister or Brother, I'd like to hear from you, too.) What should I expect? What went well? What didn't go well?
posted by maudlin to Human Relations (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I recently learned that my husband had a Big Brother. It was apparently an extremely positive experience for him...the way he described it was "always having somewhere to go hang out when things were too much at home." I don't think this means husband was showing up at 3 am, but if things were kind of sucking on a Saturday afternoon, he could call up the BB and go over to just chill out. The BB was only about 6 or 8 years older, old enough to be out on his own and have roommates, who were also welcoming to my husband. It was a haven.

I don't know if it is typical for Big Brothers/Sisters to have that kind of open-door policy. I do know that husband recently contacted his former BB to tell him how much his involvement had meant, and it was pretty cool for both of them to catch up after 25 years or so, and especially for the BB to know that by being there, he helped my husband choose a better path than he might have otherwise.
posted by MsElaineous at 5:51 PM on August 5, 2007

Best answer: What are you looking to get out of the program? If you're most interested in the "make a difference" aspect, you may also want to check out CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). It's a program in which volunteers form relationships with children in the foster care system, and in addition to acting as friends and mentors to the child, they also make recommendations to the court about the child's living situation, educational goals, and other aspects of the child's life that are being adjudicated by the court. It's a different sort of program, but intensely rewarding. It's less well known than BB/BS, but they have more volunteers nationwide, and they always need more volunteers to work with this incredibly vulnerable group of kids.
posted by decathecting at 5:54 PM on August 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can't speak directly to Big Brother/Sisters, but I did something similar through a community youth counseling center several years ago (we were called Youth Advocates). I was assigned a 14 year old girl who had run away with an 18 yr. old boy. We started with an interview with the parents where they asked me questions, and then I met my "little sister." I had to write a report after each of my meetings or telephone conversations with my "sister" and all of the YAs had a group meeting once a month to discuss what was happening and support each other.

We were supposed to do some kind of activity with them for a couple of hours every week, and try to call them at least once in between. We did things like go to the movies then go to McDonald's and talk, or go roller skating, go to the aquarium, etc. It didn't really matter to her so much what we did as it did that I just spent time with her.

The most negative thing that happened was that whenever I went to pick her up, her mother couldn't wait to tell me very negative things about her, and humiliate her in front of me. It soon became apparent that the mother was jealous that her daughter wanted to spend time with me and not so much with her. I tried to be friendly to her mother while I was there, and as soon as we got outside, I made sure that I emphasized to my "sister" that I made up my own mind and didn't automatically believe what I was told about her, and she just blossomed. She was so hungry for any kind of positive affirmation that she just soaked it up. There was none of the "oppositional" kid I'd been told about - she was a softie who just needed some attention and affection.

I was only able to do this for about 6 months before her family moved. But her social worker at school told the counselor that she was doing better and not hanging out with her old crowd during the time we were meeting. It was a wonderful experience, and I really felt that I had made a difference in her life.
posted by la petite marie at 6:03 PM on August 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A friend of mine applied to be a big sister and was rejected because her brother, whom she has not seen in years and wouldn't have taken the kid to visit anyway, has a criminal record. So... be aware that the screening process can throw you some curves.
posted by orange swan at 6:14 PM on August 5, 2007

I remember I had a gentleman who came in this copacity while I was in elementary school. I remember he worked with me and another child. I remember I got a science book and the other boy a ball of somesort (football maybe?) towards the end of his visits.

I remember it as a positive experience and I dont remember many things from that part of my life. I can't say I look back on it in terms of it changing my life b ut I can say that it was a plus and not a minue of my childhood. I wonder if I can look him up...
posted by crewshell at 6:14 PM on August 5, 2007

I'd like to chime in with a follow-up question: what's the "acceptable" age range for big brothers (well, the upper limit, specifically)?
posted by mpls2 at 6:17 PM on August 5, 2007

my sister was a Big Sister for a few years. both she and her little sister moved away from the area, but i think they are still in touch. i dont know the details about my sisters experience, but i know she had a very positive one
posted by Flood at 6:25 PM on August 5, 2007

There is a crisis in male mentorship in urban areas; the demand outstrips the supply so much that there is a 1200 child long waiting list for Big Brother's in Philly right now. They now consider cross-gender pairings, which is something to think about if you're a woman who feels up to that and wants to make a difference. Also an FYI to any guys reading this who have considered it; if you ever wanted to be a Big Brother, the time is now.
posted by The Straightener at 6:52 PM on August 5, 2007

Best answer: I used to administer a grant from the division of juvenile crime prevention from the DOJ that was a program quite similar to BB&S, a position I took after working with high-risk youth for about 6 years.

First, it is possible to be a mentor w/o working with "at-risk" youth, although really, most youth are "at risk."

Secondly, if you've identified that you really WANT to work with special populations (hate that phrase), you need to understand that there will be aspects out of control of you, your program, and your student. Like what? Parents moving, getting evicted, divorcing, going to jail, or randomly deciding they don't want their child involved with your program any more.

Next, do you have any personal experience that would allow you to relate to a child in tumultuous circumstances? "My daddy wouldn't buy me a Benz" doesn't count of course, no criticism to the OP--but you'd be amazed at the number of clueless people who think that helping change a life is as easy as cookies once a week. Most of the kids who really NEED these kinds of mentors are kids for whom seriously facked up things have happened, or at least where good things have been conspicuously left out of their lives.

In the end, here's what I think:
I applaud your interest, now you've got to determine your level of dedication.
If you have no experience, you want younger children. Think 7-10, ones who haven't realized yet that people live any other way than they do. They're easier.
If you DO have experience, and I mean REAL experience, then go for teens. Nothing in this world can touch the feeling you get when you actually know that you've done something for a youth in need.

As I've said before, I've worked for right at 10 years with "at-risk" populations in every sense from tutoring to restraint-heavy situations. I'd be happy to provide any assistance I could to anyone interested in dropping out of the rat race and dropping into reality.
posted by TomMelee at 8:37 PM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was a Big Sister and I loved it. The best part? The kid, man. She was funny and cool and I liked her so much. I don't know how good I was at it, though. In retrospect, I should have tried to do more edifying stuff with her, but so that it was actually fun to her. Sneaky edification. Instead, I only had one goal, which was: make her happy. Give her total control over this one aspect of her life. That meant if she wanted to watch an epically horrible kid's movie over and over with me or just walk around JC Penney looking at crap she could never afford to buy, that's what we did, no questions asked. Mainly, I did this because as a little unhappy no-money-having kid I rarely got that kind of autonomy with other people. Most proper adults who dealt with me wanted to edify me, which sometimes really worked out but oftentimes was a huge crashing hideous bore. I wish I'd asked for more guidance and help from the program about how to find a good middle ground between kid-does-whatever-she-wants and let's-go-to-the-museum-again-and-again-and-again.

The toughest part? Without a doubt, overempathizing. Meaning I'd see her wanting stuff she couldn't have, I'd see her chaotic crazy home life, I'd see her cry and I'd go kind of nuts from my essential powerlessness to change things for her. I was younger then -- I think now I'd do much better. Empathy is crucial but so is a very clear-eyed and realistic sense of the limits of what you can do for your Sister. You can't fix her home life if it needs fixing. You can't expect to see tangible fruits from your efforts. You just have to trust that there's value in what you're doing and that the simplest stuff you aren't even conscious of may be the most important stuff you do. By this I mean that simply being a rational and kind adult, handling stress and conflict calmly and well, and just helping her know that she is always safe in your presence is in itself tremendous. You might be the first adult she ever has that feeling with.

I hope that if you really want to do this that you will. I remember what was tough about it, obviously, but I remember more how happy it made me to see her laugh and how great it was that I -- who never had my own sister -- could have the experience of feeling like one. Best of luck to you.
posted by melissa may at 9:15 PM on August 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was a Big Brother.
A+++++ Experience would mentor with this organization again.

But seriously, it really is a great thing to do. To alot of these kids (mine in particular), simply being dependable, and showing up on time every week means so much. Littles pretty much always come from hectic(at best) home lives, and the simple dependability and regularity is huge. I had a lot of fun with my kid, who, as a byproduct of his home life was very very behind on his reading ability, but very inquisitive and intelligent otherwise. We spent equal amounts of time doing fun things (playing games, going places, or just hanging out in a calm environment), and learning. But naturally, he didn't ever want to just read (well, at first.), so I had to figure out ways to trick him into reading. We went to the Aquarium, and he wanted to know about EVERY AWESOME FISH!. So I made him read the placard for every awesome fish, and so-on.

The point of that pointless anecdote, I guess, is that I look on the situation very fondly, and truly loved making a difference in this kid's life.

Ps: I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I have to. My kid's name was, no joke, Frederick Douglas. His parents made no indication of doing this on purpose, even when prodded. Then again, I did know a kid named Duncan Hoops whose parents also claimed ignorance. But come on, mom and dad. His name is Duncan Hoops. You knew what you were doing.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 2:05 AM on August 6, 2007

Response by poster: Lots of great answers from all over the place -- thanks! I don't think CASA has an equivalent in Canada, and this kind of program may be a huge first step for me to take, but I marked decathecting's comment as a best answer because those of you in the States may find it a great option.

Yes, I really have to assess my level of commitment and my probable tendency to over-empathize, and will probably try a group program or being matched with a younger child to start. My childhood and adolescence were very definitely bumpy, but I never felt "at risk" and shouldn't fool myself that my experiences were comparable to what a lot of these kids are dealing with.
posted by maudlin at 7:43 AM on August 6, 2007

Best answer: I've just recently started as a Big Sister (we had our second outing yesterday, we went to the beach!) but from experience with Girl Scouting and working with children in an education setting - I whole heartedly second what melissa may has to say about the mentoring experience. You won't fix everything about a child's life through being a Big, but just being there as a source of support, positive feelings and reliability can have a huge impact. It's a great experience for you too, because kids are great people.

What I can say about the screening and matching process is that, at least in my area, they really make every effort to treat both the Bigs and Littles as individuals, and you also have a wealth of support from the BBBS agency, including monthly check ins on how the match is going. I went through a pretty involved process of interviewing, providing references, writing down the kinds activities I liked, my expectations and preferences for a possible Little, getting training on some issues to be aware of etc etc all of which I was asked to be painfully honest about. It's very okay to say what age group you'd prefer to work with, your comfort level with a different religion or being matched with a child with disabilities, all that sort of thing. They want you to be honest so both you and the Little can be matched with the right person for them. The Littles go through a similar process answering questions, talking about their home life, what they hope their Big will be like, and so on. I will agree with TomMelee that younger kids are easier if you haven't worked much with kids before. Convincing them to like you is easier, their problems are less complicated, and communication can be worlds simpler with a eight year old than a thirteen year old (especially girls, as you should well know). But BBBS should be happy to match you with whatever your preferences.

Once you're through the screening process, they will always offer a potential match to you first, then if you say okay the offer is made to the potential Little and their family, once that's cleared you will all meet for the first time with your match support person. You'll establish expectations, how often you want to meet, and everyone signs an agreement for the year. My Little and I also spent some time that first meeting going over this great list they have provided with local ideas for things to do, circling things we both liked. We decided we would take turns coming up with ideas for each of our outings and she picked the first one. After these first two outings we're starting to get to know each other, and often I'm just listening while my Little talks about things going on in her life. We both like walking about being outdoors, so often we're doing something else but the talking happens along with it. It's a novelty I think for her to have an adult just focused on and caring about her, and it helps that I really remember how much it sucked sometimes to be a teenager and the oldest daughter. She's really funny, and just starting to have real opinions about the world and what's going on in her life, and getting to spend time with her is just the greatest thing. I don't feel like I have to be a perfect role model, just human and a fellow gal to have fun with.

I really recommend it, you can volunteer 3-5 hours every week or every other week and the time is well spent. I have a pretty busy life at the moment, so I only see my Little every other week, but it's been great so far! Best of luck, you're doing a great thing.
posted by nelleish at 7:44 AM on August 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

i'm a big sister, and i can't say enough good things about the program. i absolutely love spending time with my little sister, and she has expressed similar sentiments about hanging out with me.

even if you just watch a movie together, giving your little brother/sister a break from their home life or whatever it is they face day to day - that's something they wouldn't normally get to experience.
posted by gursky at 8:07 AM on August 6, 2007

Best answer: I’ve been a Big Brother for almost 2 years now, absolutely love it and would/have recommended it to others.

Similar experience to nelleish’s second & third paragraph for matching and screening. Expect the entire process to perhaps take longer than you’d imagine. From my first “I think I might be interested email” to the actual first outing was maybe 4 or 5 months (application form, reference checks, police background check, meeting with caseworker a couple of times, meeting with caseworker & parent, meeting with caseworker & parent & Little, then first outing).

I’d say choosing your Little that would be a good match is quite important. Maybe it’s just my agency, but I live in a city of 350k and after I was all approved I had the choice between only 3 different Littles (my Little, his younger brother, and one other boy). Doesn’t seem like too much selection, I didn’t ask my caseworker, but I think it could be a possibility that they assign Littles to specific caseworkers (as the caseworker has met you a number of times, and the Little’s family a number of times – and different caseworkers haven’t met you or the family to know if it’d be a good fit). Anyways, if there seems like a small selection and that none would be a good fit, maybe see if a different caseworker has other Littles that might be a better fit.

What to expect in regards to the Big Brothers agency itself… It could just be my agency but this is a pretty solitary/independent type of volunteer work. You’ll meet with your Little tons, and their family a fair amount, I’ve yet to meet another Big though, and aside from talking to the director for 20 minutes once I’d been finally approved, I’ve only really met my caseworker. This is not the type of volunteer work where you’ll be meeting tons of different people. In part that might be due to just my agency not organizing too many large group outings for Bigs & Littles (maybe 3 a year – and they’re a bit lame for a young teen, I kind of agree). Not too many free tickets to events and the discounts tend to be Big pays full price and Little gets in for free for activities like: laser tag, mini-putt, skiing, bowling, IMAX.

My caseworker first described the role as being a friend (not a parent or a disciplinarian). For people with no prior experience (like me), unlike a few of the suggestions upthread I think it might be easier to choose a Little that is on the older end of the spectrum. There are varying backgrounds to the different potential Littles. Mine is completely normal except him, his younger brother and his mother immigrated to Canada and the father is not in the picture at all. If I had chosen a 7 or 8 year old (instead of a 13 year old) I think it might have been difficult to relate and to do things that we were both genuinely interested in. He’s pretty athletic, so we play a lot of sports, if he was on the younger end of the spectrum athletics might be completely out of the picture. Same if my Little came from a really troubled family. I’m sure it would add a lot of extra pressure or problems (especially for a first timer to Big Brothers/Sisters). I greatly admire Bigs who have Littles from troubled backgrounds as they’re probably making a great difference, but for a first timer why not choose someone with a fairly normal background who just happens to be missing a parent(s)? Might also be good for people who tend to over-empathize. If you’re in it to make a huge difference, well… you’re still helping someone, and you can always choose a Little that is right on the upper age limit (14-ish?) that if you didn’t pair up they wouldn’t have a Big at all and would be out of the program.

So yeah, consider a Little on the older end of the spectrum. It’s really neat to see their interests change as well. From wanting to watch Pink Panther and Big Momma’s House 2 at age 13 (which normally wouldn’t be in my viewing repertoire) to watching 300 and Flags of Our Fathers at age 15 (I can’t even imagine wanting to watch what a 7 year old would enjoy). I think conversations are a lot more interesting then it would be with a younger child as well. I think it’s a lot easier to be friends with a 13 or 14 year old than a 7 year old. Another thing is my Little is a lot more independent than his younger brother (which is a plus as I don’t have a car and he lives far away). The past 6 months he can actually ride the bus and just meet me at the movie theatre, or I can meet him downtown after he walks there after his school. (Oh yeah, our main form of communication is MSN).

I have tons of positive stories (and no bad ones) but I’ve typed a lot already. Hope you (and others) end up doing it and you enjoy it as much as I have.
posted by curbstop at 12:52 PM on September 15, 2007

@ mpls2: “I'd like to chime in with a follow-up question: what's the "acceptable" age range for big brothers (well, the upper limit, specifically)?”

I doubt there is an upper age limit at all. It might take a bit longer to find a suitable match, but with the number of potential Littles waiting to be paired I’m sure they’d find one.

Conversely, I would have applied a long time ago except that I was under the mistaken impression that there was kind of a lower age limit. I’m sure there is one, but you don’t need a job and you don’t need a car. You can be a poor university student and they’d still love to have you.
posted by curbstop at 12:54 PM on September 15, 2007

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