Big Brothers Big Sisters: charity in focus

9 October 2013

The Big Brothers Big Sisters programme is the largest community-based mentoring programme in Australia. Roberta Steuart, Partnerships and Fundraising Manager, tells us about how the programme is changing lives in a very tangible way.

Big Brothers Big Sisters provides mentoring support for children who face serious adversity – those who have little opportunity to experience the magic and wonder of childhood or develop positive and supportive relationships with adults. Many of the children are hungry for friendship, guidance, acceptance and hope.

The programme facilitates meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers and children between the ages of 7-17 years living with disadvantage. Ultimately, the aim is to support the development of life skills in the children through fun, friendship, guidance and long-term positive role modelling from a volunteer mentor.

Whilst Big Brothers Big Sisters has been successfully operating in Australia for over 35 years, its origins stretch back to the US over 100 years ago when a law clerk saw how many young boys were coming through the justice system. He wanted to change this trend, so formed a group to mentor these young boys.

Issues driving the mentoring relationships are broad and varied

The reasons young people are referred to the Big Brothers Big Sisters programme are many and varied. “The common issue is that the young people are experiencing a chaotic or complex family environment and varying degrees of social isolation,” said Roberta. “There’s a high risk that without appropriate support, these young people will leave school early, turn to drugs or alcohol, and/or enter the juvenile justice system.”

Children are referred to the programme by either their family, school or other government agencies when they are identified as being at risk due to a lack of adult support. The reasons for the lack of support are also complex and varied – from parental drug or alcohol abuse, mental health issues or the absence or disengagement of one or more parents.

“Having an adult role model makes an enormous difference - many of these children do not have someone that provides the guidance and support they need,” said Roberta.

The mentors provide the children with an alternative view on their life. “A wonderful example of this is one of the children in our programme whose father was in jail and was living with his mother who was providing little support,” said Roberta. “When asked by his teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up, he didn’t say a teacher or fireman, he said he wanted to get a job like his Big Brother. For the first time, his expectations of where he wanted to be later in life didn’t include going to jail.”

Focus on prevention

The overriding focus of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ programme is prevention – preventing anti-social or illegal behaviours before they become second nature to the children. The mentoring relationship and the experiences and support it provides builds resilience and a sense of self-worth, empowering young people to make the right choices in their thinking and behaviours.

The long-term nature of the relationships also provides a great foundation for meaningful change. Young people are matched with a rigorously screened and trained mentor for a minimum of 12 months, but most matches go for three years or more. “Our matches meet three to four times a month for fun activities like bike riding, cooking, having a meal together, etc. This regularity gives the child a stable person in their life,” said Roberta.

Success is more than tangible outcomes

Success for Big Brothers Big Sisters is all about providing someone who can support and guide a vulnerable young person - keeping them in school so their job prospects increase dramatically, out of the juvenile justice system and making the right choices in their life.

Research shows that after spending 18 months with their mentor, the programme’s young people are:

  • 45% less likely to begin using drugs and 27% less likely to use alcohol;
  • 52% less likely to skip school;
  • a third less likely to use physical violence;
  • getting along better with their family; and
  • more confident in their school work.

The programme has also been shown to prevent criminal activity in adult life – a huge saving to our community, both financially and socially.

Not without its challenges

Securing funding is clearly the biggest challenge the charity faces. It costs on average $1500 to match and support a child for 12 months – this covers the rigorous screening and training required to ensure a successful match and support from qualified social workers for the life of the match.

“We currently have over 650 young people waiting to be matched and receive over 1000 referrals each year for young people in need,” said Roberta. “Quite simply, more funding means we can support more children.”

The other challenge the programme faces recruiting more male mentors - over 65 per cent of programme referrals are for boys but only 27 per cent of volunteers are male.

Getting involved

Bennelong Foundation has supported the mentoring programme in a very practical way - providing financial support so more ‘Big and Little’ matches can be made. If you’d like to find out more about becoming a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, wish to make a donation or want to get involved in their fundraising activities, visit their website or call 03 9526 8107.

Jack and Michael - the start of something big

Jack was only five when he lost his dad. His Mum Joanne was becoming increasingly concerned for her son, whose grief at the loss of his father was causing him to become angry and withdrawn.

“Jack was struggling in almost all aspects of his daily life. His school work and relationships with his classmates were suffering greatly,” said Joanne. “He had trouble sleeping, was almost always sad and frequently in tears. I’d almost forgotten what his smile looked like.”

Joanne had heard about the Big Brothers Big Sisters programme. “I thought he really needed something to cheer him up, so I waited until Jack’s seventh birthday and sent off an application.”

“In Jack’s situation, a caseworker spoke with Joanne and Jack’s teacher who confirmed that while he was creative and enjoyed school, he craved attention from teachers, while withdrawing from peers. His teacher commented that he mostly stayed on his own and had no close friends,” explains Donna Hamilton, case worker from Big Brothers Big Sisters. “Our job is to then set about finding the best match for the young person’s needs, interests, age and location.”

Lego-loving Jack was matched with Michael, an engineer in his late 20s who lives and works in the city. The two share a passion for ‘building things’, going on adventures and sport. Michael’s family moved around a lot when he was growing up so he was experienced in making new friends. With his family now living all over Australia, Michael missed his younger nephews and was looking to give back to the community.

More than 18 months on and the match has been a huge success. The impact of having a new Big Brother was almost instant. “I hoped Big Brothers Big Sisters would help cheer Jack up, but I was in no way prepared for how quickly and dramatically this would happen!” says Joanne. “After their very first outing, Jack came home grinning from ear to ear. He slept better that night. His teachers soon noticed an improvement both in Jack’s school work and relationships with his peers. His sense of humour came back and so did his smile.”

The rewards of the relationship run both ways. “I’ve loved spending time with Jack. He’s a great young kid who’s very energetic and smart. It’s been fantastic to have the opportunity to create a unique brotherly bond with him”, says Michael. “We’ve been on many adventures together and I’ve had the chance to meet some great people who are also mentors in the programme.”

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