Meeting the Moment: Mentoring Through the Pandemic

Sometimes, difficult circumstances bring out the best in us. Sometimes, challenges reveal our character and our strengths in ways that are not as obvious when things are easier. This has certainly been the case for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, and for our Bigs, Littles, families, and partners as we have worked together to support one another throughout the COVID crisis.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, BBBS quickly changed the way the agency delivered its services to meet the needs of our kids, our families, and our Bigs. The past 18 months have required creativity, compassion, patience, resilience, and understanding… and these things have been there in abundance. As the circumstances of our daily lives have changed, and changed again, our commitment to being there for one another has never wavered.

“Since last March, our Program team has worked hard to adapt our mentoring model to continue serving more kids, making more new matches, and supporting the development of our existing matches,” said Joe Strychalski, BBBS VP of Programs. “We’ve worked to do this in a way that provides the greatest benefit for our young people while also ensuring the safety and well-being of our families, kids, volunteers and staff.”

Pivoting from a service built on in-person relationships to one that handles everything remotely is not a simple process. In a matter of weeks however, BBBS transitioned to providing all of the agency’s services virtually. “When the pandemic hit, we knew we had to think outside the box in order to keep moving forward,” said Christina Snell, Director of Match Support. “From dealing with agency inquiries, to the interview and enrollment process, to matching Bigs and Littles – we began conducting every aspect of our work virtually.”

The team implemented 30-minute online Volunteer Information Sessions, which have proven to be very popular, in order to recruit new Bigs. Facilitated by BBBS staff, as well as Bigs, these online sessions offer specific information about the match process, as well as personal insights from current and former mentors.

BBBS staff also began conducting all enrollment interviews with children, family members, and prospective volunteers via Zoom. Once enrolled, match introductions between new Bigs and Littles were handled virtually as well.

For new matches, there were no in-person meetings. Instead, BBBS’ Match Support team created online activities to facilitate connections between new Bigs and Littles. Regular check-ins, and referrals to community resources and services were all handled by phone, text, email, and online. A special Facebook group for Bigs provided Bigs with an important avenue for checking-in, encouraging, and supporting one another.

“Change is the only constant in our world, and, as an agency, we have to change with the times to meet our matches where they are,” said Christina. “We’ve done that through the pandemic, through the recent ice storm, and through other challenging times and situations.  No matter the circumstances, child safety is our highest priority. For now, we are continuing to host all group events virtually, including monthly Yoga nights, and Sister to Sister, and Brother to Brother workshops.”

And how have matches respond to all of this virtual activity? Like BBBS’ staff, they have made the best of a tough situation at a time when being connected is as important, if not more so, than ever.

“COVID has been hard on our matches in different ways. At first, matches were concerned about meeting in person for fear of getting COVID. Matches had to transition to virtual get-togethers. Though some matches were ready to move into in-person meetings as things began to get better, others were more hesitant,” said Ana Rodriguez, Senior Customer Relations and Match Support Specialist. “For families who had limited access to the internet or who did not have strong internet/phone service, engaging virtually was a bit more challenging.”

“To stay connected, our matches got creative by doing things such as mailing letters to one another, calling, texting, and keeping up on social media. They also mailed each other activity packages to do together over Zoom or FaceTime, and they emailed each other,” Ana continued.

In the past month, as restrictions have lifted, BBBS has started holding in-person match introduction meetings for Bigs and Littles again, but only if all parties are comfortable and open to doing so. These in-person meetings are held at BBBS’ office, hosted by a staff member, and limited in number. Before any new Bigs and Littles can start having in-person outings, BBBS requires signed documentation, reviewed by all parties, to ensure that all participants are clear about agency expectations and guidelines. Once this is complete, matches can again meet face to face, and do so safely.  “The Match Support team works diligently with each participant to discuss their unique comfort level and preferences around COVID,” said Christina. “We can’t emphasize enough how vital this communication is for the health, safety, and development of each match, especially during these times.”

And, as always, we continue to monitor what is happening with the pandemic and to adhere to safety guidelines and protocols recommended by health authorities.

For many matches, the recent return to in-person meetings has felt natural. “All matches, even the ones that did not connect as much during the pandemic, have said that once they were able to meet again in person it was like their relationship returned to where it was before the pandemic began and they appreciated being back in-person more than ever,” said Ana.  “Some have said that while meeting virtually during the pandemic was a challenge, they got through it, and they feel that if they could manage that, they can manage anything else that comes their way.”

“The pandemic has been a challenge for everyone in different ways, but everyone has worked hard to make it work. We are all hopeful about the future, and we are making the most of our circumstances.”

Making the best of our circumstances – it’s what we do, and do well, when we do it together.

“Since being flipped upside down with COVID, our program, our teams, and our community have really shown resilience,” said Christina. “I couldn’t be prouder of the work we’ve done.”

“We continue to seek ways to ensure that we’re providing the best mentoring experience to all of our young people and volunteers,” said Joe, “while ensuring that we’re keeping everyone safe!”

Bringing people together. Being there for one another. Rising to meet the moment. That’s the power of mentoring. It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 50 years.

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