An interview with Wendy Foster, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, providing strong role models to kids who need them. Wendy spoke with Lisa Hickey, Publisher of The Good Men Project and CEO of Good Men Media.
GMP: What is it about your mission that keeps you up at night?
WF: Let’s start with the overall vision of Big Brothers Big Sisters. It starts with a belief that all children, regardless of circumstance are born with potential. If they don’t have the circumstances to achieve that potential, it is not their fault. It is the fault of adults, the community and society. It’s up to all of us to help them to succeed and achieve the best they can.
Our vision is that every child in our sphere of reach develops healthily and thrives in adulthood.
We all pay the price when these kids don’t get to where they want to go. We want to make sure that children are not deterred from achieving their potential and that they are deterred from actions that will negatively affect their life. Millions of dollars of costs for social programs could be avoided if we could just get to them early enough.
What keeps us up at night is that there are too many children who aren’t being pushed, aren’t expected to be great–out of ignorance, out of a lack of time, or out of a lack of belief in their potential.
There’s a tough façade these kids have – that all is ok, but they are not ok. Many times, they don’t know what they don’t know. If there could be an adult in their life, someone who is not family, but not paid – like a teacher or babysitter — someone who could just be there to tell these kids they are awesome, no matter what. If that happened, schools would be better, families would be better, and negative cycles would be broken.
GMP: And what is it with these kids that actually make a difference?
What makes a difference is the presence of a caring adult. We target kids who are facing some kind of adversity in their lives. Adversity can be:
— Economic adversity
— The strain of a single-parent household
— Being cared for by adults who are under pressure to simply provide food / shelter / clothing
— A bullying environment
— A child who lacks confidence
The goal is to find children who are facing adversity and insert a caring adult.
The adult needs to be well chosen to really connect with that child. They need to be a caring adult, one who is safe, obviously, and one who has staying power, who is willing to engage in an ongoing relationship.
The basis for that relationship, in our model, is friendship.
GMP: Talk a little about the way you match up adults with children.
WF: We are very thoughtful about the adult-child pairs we put together. And after the matches are made, we continue to support the relationship. That’s where a lot of our programmatic funding goes – into the support of those relationships so that the volunteers and the “littles” have great relationships that last.
Kids really enjoy spending time with adults. And yet, often these kids don’t have enough adults in a friendship-based role in their lives. So we are about building relationships between the volunteers and children where they can have fun and build a bond. Then use that bond to have the more difficult conversations.
We are often connecting children and adults who live in different worlds. The differences might be economic based, or different in terms or education or race or cultural differences.
It’s challenging for some volunteers to understand what the child’s community is like, and often the volunteer’s consciousness unfolds as to what the family is up against.
The volunteer is forced to open their eyes in ways they didn’t necessarily want to.
Our staff is empathetic, to let the volunteers understand that it is perfectly normal to feel that way, even when someone says, “I don’t know if I can go back.”
Also, as the relationship builds, often the information the child discloses will be like the peeling of an onion. As the child becomes more comfortable, they entrust the Big Brother [or Sister] with more information. Sometimes volunteers will need our support and say, “I just learned X. Help me deal with that information.”
It’s also important for us to explain to the volunteers that most often, these parents are doing their absolute best but just can’t always deal with the challenges in their lives. The last thing we want is to have the parents feel as if they are being judged. And if the volunteers are actually judging them, that can leak out in ways that are uncomfortable for everyone. We really try to make the volunteers aware of that dynamic so it doesn’t happen, but it requires ongoing coaching.
GMP: How long does the average Big Brothers Big Sisters Relationship last?
WF: Research has found that the minimum dosage for a mentoring relationship like ours to accrue life-changing benefits is one year. So we ask for that to be the minimum commitment. The average relationship lasts three years. And the longest matches are celebrating their 11th and 12th years.
GMP: At what age do the relationships start?
WF: Most matches start between 7 and 12 years of age. Under 7, children are not developmentally able to engage in freestanding relationships. Older then 12, and kids start getting pulled away from adult relationships to peer relationships. Also, many people have strong beliefs as to what teens are like. Volunteers are often afraid that they may not be as influential with teens.
Changing perspectives, changing lives. What happens is that there is a “narrowcasting” going on in these kid’s lives. Their world is more narrow that you can ever imagine. So the volunteers open up the world for these children. It might be just going on a hike, sharing the experience of nature. One volunteer introduced their Little to the careers that exist in radio. Everything can open doors and be a learning experience.
Think about friendships. How do we create the shared experiences and bonds that define friendships? To become friends with someone, you need frequency and consistency.
So we ask for a commitment of a couple of times a month, a couple of hours at a time for our “community-based” mentoring. That’s where you might go on a hike, shoot hoops, or see a movie together.
For other relationships, we have a very popular program where the mentor goes into the school, at lunchtime or recess. This is very popular with young professionals, who can use their lunch hour to meet with their Little.
GMP: Can you speak to some of the gender differences in both the matches and what happens in the interactions?
WF: Nationwide, we have 250,000 children in the program. More girls than boys are in the program, but when we ask about who it is that is waiting for matches, it is predominantly boys. You have to be 18+ to be a volunteer. The preponderance of our volunteers are between 23 and 32 years old. Not to generalize, but what we see is that women in that age range tend to already have more experience with children – either babysitting, or raising siblings, or other family relationships. They come to us already thinking that they are going to be great with kids.
Adult men haven’t come into adulthood with as much experience with children. We hear from many men that they don’t believe they are as nurturing. They lack the confidence that they would be as good with a child.
But it turns out that all they need is for us to know what those barriers are, and to help them get over those barriers.
There is also a greater need for boys to have adult male role models. The men in the communities that are the role models are often overwhelmed. Mothers of these young boys often come to the realization on their own that they cannot be everything. We hear it over and over “I want my son to be a good man. I can’t help him as much as I’d like. I’d like a male role model for my son.”
A single mom with three kids doesn’t want the relationship to only be about her. She wants them to have a good relationship with a man. In fact, she wants her son to have better advocates with adults, period. What they see is that their son learns that adults are caring and that they can develop relationships with adults that are not based on fear or bravado. An interesting side development is that we see that for the mom, what sometimes happens is that her faith in men also starts to get restored.
Boys are learning to show only an external shell. Although Big Brothers don’t tend to bake cookies with their little brothers, (the same way the Big and Little Sisters don’t usually go rock climbing), it is not the superficial gender differences that make a difference. It might be as profound as learning that showing emotion is ok. Or that there is simply a different vocabulary between men who are close – more fist-bumping, backslaps. Men have way of communicating with each other that is different than women. Boys need to learn that. Male bonds aren’t expressed in the ways that women bonds are. Men need the tools and vocabulary to learn not only how to interact with each other but also learn how men and women interact together.
Finally, there are different ways that character might be built. They need to learn, “what does courage mean for a man?” “What is trustworthiness?” What is compassion?” And how do those things relate to how you see yourself as a man or boy. They have to see it in a man to understand it.
GMP: You’ve talked a lot about how the kids change. Do the volunteers themselves change because of these relationships?
WF: We get that all the time – volunteers who will say to us “I feel like I have gotten so much more out of this program than I have ever given to my ‘little’.”