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Big Brothers Big Sisters sets standard in virtual mentoring

April 9, 2020   ·   0 Comments

Children across the country are adjusting to a temporary new normal not being able to get to school, be with their friends, and connect with the positive mentors they might have in the school environment.

For some children who might not have these mentors at home, the transition might be more difficult for them than others, but Big Brothers Big Sisters of York continues to provide a lifeline for kids in need across the Region.

On Tuesday, Big Brothers Big Sisters of York was set to take centre-stage in an online forum of Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations across the country to share the success of their new virtual mentorship program, one which has been born out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spearheaded here in Aurora, the program could prove to be a model replicated across Canada, not just during this time of crisis, but in years to come.

As the extent of the emergency became clear, Big Brothers Big Sisters of York (BBBSY) sprang into action. Knowing the vital relationship between their “Bigs” (adult mentors) and “Littles” (kids in need) would not be able to continue face-to-face, the organization knew a solution needed to be found to keep these relationships going wherever possible.

“Every one of our mentors said they were not putting this on hold and there is no way we can back out now,” says Katie Lowes of BBBSY. “They realize that kids need somebody in their corner, somebody they can feel comfortable and safe with and, right now, they need that more than ever. With everything else that is different in their lives, the one thing we can maintain is consistency in this aspect and giving them that safe space, that sounding board. That has been really successful and really exciting for us.”

Shifting their one-on-one mentorship programs online has also helped BBBSY solve challenge they were experiencing before our lives were upended by the virus: wait lists for both mentors and mentees.

“We are not in a position to be able to encourage new relationships as we typically go out and throw a ball around [and introduce pairings], so we were looking at how we can mitigate some of those challenges that so many people were facing, particularly families with young kids at home who are feeling isolated and probably anxious and bored out of their minds,” explains Ms. Lowes. “How do we support these people right now who really need a one-on-one opportunity more than ever? Our agency was able to come up really quickly with Virtual Mentoring, which will reduce our wait lists. We have a lot of kids from across York Region who are waiting for their chance to get their Big Brother or Big Sister. For the time being, we have a really cool temporary solution to provide them with somebody they can just get to know over phone calls, text messages, video calls and that kind of thing – even just playing PlayStation together or whatever works for that person. They are going to have a virtual mentor during this time that can keep them connected; it is going beyond staying connected but getting connected.

“We have been trying to figure out how to do this for a while now. We might have a little boy in Keswick and a Big Brother in Vaughan and we can’t match them because it is an hour drive and it is just not going to work long-term. This allows us to take geography out of it and bring people together in a virtual world in a way they may never have had the opportunity to be together before.”

All mentors coming on board in the new virtual system have been put through BBBSY’s entire screening process, have undergone training and fully understand what it means to be a mentor – and just what to bring to the table. BBBSY has developed a full program of fun virtual activities Bigs and Littles can do together to help forge these vital mentorship bonds.

Their waiting lists for both categories of clients continues to grow, so if BBBSY feels this new model will work in the long-term, that will be given due consideration.

And, perhaps, be a new standard well beyond York Region.

“Our national body is really excited about this kind of work,” says Ms. Lowes. “During the first couple of days [of the crisis], we were in the mindset of, ‘How do we make the most of this? We can’t just wait this out, there are kids who are still waiting or their Big Brother or Big Sister one way or another.’ This has been kind of exciting for us to take the lead and have some innovative ideas I think are going to get utilized across the country. Maybe not every agency will have a need for this, but I think there will be a lot of organizations where this can play a role in their wait lists and I think it is really awesome to be able to be a part of that.”

By Brock Weir



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