January is National Mentoring Month. Being a mentor can mean different things to different people. When I was growing up, my parents were divorced and my mother worked full time. My dad moved away, and my mom was stressed out and tired when she was home. Luckily we had Diana. Diana was our real estate agent when we had to sell the family home and move. She and my mother became friends, and Diana ended up moving in with us. It was a blessing in many ways. It helped my mother pay the bills, gave her someone to talk to, and it gave my sister and brother and me an additional adult in our lives.
At the time we thought of Diana as our friend. She introduced us to tacos, and hot fudge sundaes. She stayed up with us until midnight on New Year's Eve. She made sure that our birthdays were celebrated in a grand fashion. Even after Diana moved out into her own place, she was always there for us, just a phone call away. We could talk to Diana about anything, and know that she never judged us. One of my favorite memories is when she took my sister and me to the beach and we made Clam Chowder from scratch and went bike riding. Diana helped us feel normal, and brought light and joy to our lives when we desperately needed it.
Diana has always been a member of our family, kind of like the hip Aunt you always look forward to visit. And now that I'm involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, I can see that Diana was also our mentor.
It is evident how much having a mentor can mean to a child, no matter what circumstances that child is in. All it takes is one adult to show support, encouragement, or concern to absolutely affect a positive change in how that child views himself and the world. I knew this going into the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. What I didn't know, and soon learned, was how much the experience would change me.
I'm a parent, so I know what it means to love a child. I know what it means to want the best for this person, to put his needs before your own, and to make this person your priority without hesitation. I have a child with special needs, so I know about the obstacles, and the heartache. I thought I was fully prepared and well equipped to handle all of the emotions and challenges that come with mentoring a child. But every day I learn something new. And every day my heart is opened more, and I am grateful that I have the opportunity to expand my awareness because this girl is in my life.
What makes Big Brothers Big Sisters unique is that it is a one-on-one mentoring program. There are local chapters all over the country, so that many different geographical areas are served. When an adult volunteers to be a mentor, there is an interview, and a background screening process. Then the "match" part can begin. The adults, the "Bigs," and the children, the "Littles," fill out a questionnaire that reflects their interests, needs, and wants in a mentor relationship. From there a match specialist pairs up two that are compatible, and a match meeting is set. At the match meeting, the two meet for the first time, and get to know each other. The parent, foster parent, or guardian also gets to participate, and if all parties are agreed, the match is made.
The minimum time requirement is four hours a week. This can be accomplished in one visit or several visits, depending on how the match wants to work it. There is a lot of flexibility to the program. Low cost or no cost activities are encouraged. Time together is what is emphasized, as that is what the kids need more than anything. Some adults express that they worry that they don't have enough to give, that they will have a hard time finding interesting things to do each visit to keep the child interested. But once they spend a few weeks just hanging out, they discover the beauty and simplicity of the relationship itself, and know that time together is the most valuable gift there is.
Adults who enter the program are required to commit one year to it. It takes a few weeks, or even months, for the relationship to really gel. Many times the kids have trouble trusting, and it takes time for them to bond to a new person in their life. The year goes by quickly, and if at the end of the year, for any reason, the adult needs to dissolve the match, they can. But most matches last much longer, even a lifetime. Children ages six through eighteen can be matched with a mentor, and they can stay in the program until they are twenty-one years old.
My Little Sister is sixteen years old now. I've known her for almost a year. I can't imagine my life without her. We have a lot of fun together, going to plays and movies, cooking, and discovering different parts of the city. But the best times are when we just hang out and talk.
People come into our lives for a reason. We learn more from our relationships than we do from anything else. Diana came into my life when I was a child, and she's still an important part of my life today. She's family to me, and I love her. And now my Little Sister is an important part of my life, too, and I love her. I hope that I am helping her as much as Diana helped me, and that she will mentor someone when she has the opportunity. Relationships are the heartbeat of this world, and Big Brothers Big Sisters brings people together to make the world a better place.
Introductory video, Big Brothers Big Sisters Ventura County: