Big Brothers Big Sisters: Growing Up

I've been a mentor and volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters Columbia Northwest (BBBS) for the last eight years. Of all the nonprofits I've worked with, I have to say I have found this agency and its work with local children to be the most emotionally rewarding.

I've watched as the organization has transformed. Its messaging is now centered around a single critically important outcome in our society: high school graduation. The agency currently manages about 1,350 matches with a goal this year of 1,600. When it reaches its ultimate goal of 6,000 successful matches, the area graduation rate will improve by 5% without a single additional tax dollar. BBBS now depends on local corporate and individual support. This 2 minute video explains why this work is so important in Oregon:

Many people aren't aware of Oregon's most embarrassing statistic: we have the nation's 4th worst high school graduation rate, and Portland area schools' graduation rate was 74% in 2013 compared to 67% for Oregon overall.  What are the costs to us as a society for this failure of our educational system?

A reinvigorated Big Brothers Big Sisters now has its entire organization focusing on this issue. Recent graduation rates for students with BBBS mentors offers proof that mentoring works: 95% of children with a Big Brother or Big Sister volunteer mentor graduated on time in 2013 and the rate for children of color was 100%.

My father was Vice Principal of Thurston High in Springfield, Oregon for 22 years. Many of the problems we see in today's schools are the same as those he lamented nightly at the dinner table.  

In the intervening decades, with the decline of the middle class family, the problems facing teens have only grown worse. Parents who might normally have had the time to be actively involved with their child's education find themselves working multiple jobs just to keep the household afloat.

Today's children face more stressors than we had in the 1970's. These include things like childhood obesity, school shootings, gang violence, social media bullying, cutbacks in arts education, athletics, and many others.

Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest has accepted the fact that today's Mentor has to be more than someone who takes a kid out for ice cream once a week. Today's children need something more like a life coach or a systems navigator. An at-risk child in foster care or a kid with a single parent often needs a caring adult willing to help with things like:

  • Maintaining communication with teachers or school counselors
  • Encouraging attendance and assisting with homework
  • Arranging for participation in athletic events or community activities 
  • Cheering them on at athletic events or programs
  • Finding appropriate career or job fairs, exposing them to career options 
  • Locating summer educational programs or internships

Today's kids absolutely need a Mentor who is a friend, but they also need a hero. They need someone helping to champion their success. Today's news programs, many of their friends, and naysayers are constantly telling them what they "can't" do. These kids need people in their lives who can show and tell them that "they absolutely can."

Think of someone in your life who helped you survive middle and high school. Was it an aunt or an uncle, an elderly neighbor, or a grandparent? Many of today's high school dropouts lack any connection to close family friends, relatives or the mayors of the local cul-de-sac.

If someone mentored you once, maybe one day you can pay it forward?

When you're ready, I can think of a great place to start.