Working Together: Supporting Our Volunteers
Relationships are central at Big Brothers Big Sisters. The relationship between a Big and a Little is certainly a primary focus, but so, too, is the relationship between our Bigs and the agency itself. BBBS’ Bigs volunteer as mentors, not for monetary compensation, but for the opportunity to make a positive impact in the life of a child. We do not take their commitment lightly, and we work hard to connect with, and to support, our volunteers in a number of important ways.
In order for matches to be effective, stability matters. Changing mentors because a Big and a Little didn’t bond is not beneficial for our kids, or our volunteers. Consequently, we place a real emphasis on getting to know the Bigs and Littles who apply to participate in our program during the enrollment and interview process. We ask a lot of questions, and gather a lot of information up front, in order to make the best matches possible from the very beginning. There is both an art and a science to matching Bigs and Littles well, and this is an area where our professional staff excels.
Once a match is made, we also work hard to provide Bigs with the support they need to make the match a success. Our Match Support Specialists conduct regular check-ins with Bigs, offer training, and provide additional match activities.
“We see great success in a number of areas when our Bigs are engaged with their matches and with our mission. So, we are constantly looking for additional ways to connect with, train, and develop our relationships with them,” said Joe Strychalski, BBBS VP of Programs. “The better we know our Bigs and they know us, the more likely they are to be able to handle any challenges that come along and stick with their Little, the Little’s family and us. And that’s great for our kids.”
One of the ways BBBS supports Bigs is by hosting small match group activities, which also helps matches connect with one another. These events include Sister to Sister and Brother to Brother workshops focused on yoga, art and games – activities that have moved online since the COVID pandemic hit. Prior to the pandemic, BBBS also held monthly youth activity nights (YAC nights) onsite that gave matches an opportunity to come hang out to, play games, and meet other matches.
“Every match in our program is unique. We provide individualized support to each of them, and we have different ways of connecting with our Bigs on a monthly, and sometimes weekly, basis,” said Christina Snell, Director of Match Support. “We want to meet our Bigs where they are, and to work with them in ways that help them feel supported and engaged with our agency and with our mission.”
In addition to small group workshops, BBBS also hosts several large match activities each year, including our annual Hobie Day on Lake Travis, and our annual Match Holiday Party. These events give matches the opportunity to share special experiences, strengthen their relationships, and create lasting memories.
“We also love connecting Bigs with one another so that they can feel a sense of community and gain support from their peers,” said Christina. “It’s great for them to know that there are other Bigs out there who are experiencing similar joys and challenges as they navigate their roles as mentors.”
To promote this kind of peer-to-peer connection, BBBS has created some special groups and resources for mentors only. One of these is the agency’s Big Impact Group (B.I.G.). Made up of particularly engaged Bigs, the B.I.G. takes on projects that support the agency through fundraising, volunteer recruitment and advocacy. A Big Facebook Group provides Bigs with an online platform for sharing information with other Bigs, and BBBS has recently created a new monthly event called Big Talk Tuesdays where Bigs can talk with each other, and with BBBS’ Match Support Specialists, via Zoom.
“Last month in our Big Talk Tuesday session, we had 5 Bigs collaborate on a Zoom call to talk about how they are staying connected with their Littles during this time of social distancing,” said Christina. “Within the first few minutes it was great to see how relieved they all were to know they ‘weren’t in it alone’ and, by sharing ideas about ways to connect virtually, they left the call feeling empowered and encouraged.”
“It’s our job to stay tuned in to how a volunteer is experiencing being a Big in our program, to walk alongside them, to mediate and encourage positive match development and, in doing so, to strengthen that match,” Christina continued. “The longer a match is together, the stronger it becomes, and the greater the impact on the life of the Little involved. We interact with all participants, Big, Little, and Guardian, on a regular basis to gauge each match’s development and overall success.”
Is this level of volunteer engagement and support unique to BBBS?
“I’m regularly discussing our programs and processes with other mentoring agencies, especially now, as more agencies have been required to seek virtual options,” said Joe. “One of the things I hear most often is how incredibly thorough our enrollment process is for volunteers and how important that is in keeping our kids safe and setting them up for a great experience from the start. In addition to that, I think we also provide great opportunities for our mentors to interact with each other. We’ve been able to develop an incredibly strong network of active Bigs who support, encourage and share with each other. I don’t know if that happens in many other organizations – but it certainly strengthens our individual matches and agency!”
Bigs make a huge impact on the lives of children. Though most of them will say they receive as much from their Littles as they give, their commitment to helping kids have a better chance in life is vital. Whether going on a hike, enjoying a slice of pizza, or simply participating in a Zoom call and listening – every minute they give to their Little offers that child a constant, caring moment that can make a life-changing impact.
“The more we’re able to engage with our Volunteers (and Littles and Parents/Guardians), the more connected they’ll be with us and with their match, and the better prepared they’ll be to handle challenges as they come along,” said Joe. “This means our matches stay together longer and our kids are that much more likely to get along better with a parent or their peers, do better in school and stay out of trouble. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the success of our Littles!”