Big Brothers Big Sisters offers ‘life-changing friendships’

MOUNT FOREST – An act of kindness can make an incredible difference in someone’s life. 

“Everyone experiences some kind of trauma in life,” said Marianne Christie, executive director and mentoring coordinator at North Wellington Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Having support or having lack of support can ultimately define how a person can cope. We offer the right support at the right time. And it’s as simple as matching a child to an adult for a caring, mentoring relationship.”

Christie, who has been creating matches since 1995 and has also been a Big Sister, added, “We welcome mentors of all ages and from all different life experiences.” 

Volunteer applicants in all programs at BBBS go through an extensive screening process. Ultimately those who join the program have an appreciation for that process. 

“We are dealing with the most vulnerable sector,” Christie said. 

Once a match is made, the pair will get together a few hours a week. 

“Mentors advise and challenge their mentees. They provide greater consistency in their lives and connect them to opportunities and networks in the community that broaden their experience,” Christie said.

“For both the ‘Big’ and the ‘Little,’ the mentoring experience can be a life-lasting friendship built on trust and empowerment.”

Monitoring is ongoing. Christie connects with “Littles” (mentees), “Bigs” (mentors), parents and caregivers on a regular basis. 

“We want to be transparent and make sure the match is going well. I just love working with the kids, and I take pride in keeping them safe,” Christie said. “It is absolutely my passion.”

She has seen “Littles become Bigs or integral mentors, or group leaders.”

In-school mentoring

Other programs at North Wellington BBBS include in-school mentoring, Go Girls and Game On. Teri Dykeman has been managing those programs for over 10 years now.

In-school mentors spend an hour weekly at the mentees school and enjoy various activities, not just schoolwork. 

“It’s that attention. You have a child that’s maybe getting lost in the cracks. They hang out with someone once a week that they look forward to seeing, that enjoys them and boosts their self-esteem,” said Christie.

Dykeman added, “It is always inspiring to watch the smile light up on the child/youth’s face when they see their mentor and get to spend their quality time with them.”

Go Girls and Game On are seven-session, after-school programs for students in grades six through eight. The program is structured around four themes: physical activity, healthy eating, self-esteem and communication skills.

“Every one of our mentors gives their time and contributes to positive youth development, physical health and life-long success,” said Christie. 

‘Building a relationship’

Brooke Drost heard about BBBS from a friend who had been a mentor. When she moved to Mount Forest three years ago and learned there was a local BBBS, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. 

“I was looking for volunteer opportunities. I wanted to give back to my community and what better way than to inspire the next generation?”

Drost has a history of volunteerism that includes helping with VON (Victoria Order of Nurses) as a driver in Mount Forest and serving as an auxiliary member with the Wellington County OPP. 

Drost has been mentoring her “Little” for over two years, getting together once a week to talk, go for drives, do homework and activities like “Mud Girl”.

“That was a super-memorable experience for me as we overcame obstacles together and crossed the finish line, side by side,” she said.

Drost added, “It’s great to see the development of your ‘Little’ and to realize that you were a small part in helping them to achieve certain milestones. It’s also very rewarding building that bond and getting to a place where they feel comfortable opening up to you.”

“Big” Tasha Grafos said volunteering at BBBS is “a great way to connect with others and make a difference in the community … all it takes is a few hours a week.”

Grafos had been considering BBBS when she saw a call for volunteers last year and “was motivated to apply.”

Like Drost, Grafos has a long history of volunteerism, which has included being president of Egremont Community School’s Parent Council, a team manager for the Mount Forest Minor Hockey Association and serving as an ambassador for Hayden’s Hope Foundation. 

Grafos said “building a relationship with my ‘Little’ and watching her grow” has been rewarding. “My ‘Little’ and I have done a lot of fun, new things.” They’ve gone up in a plane to Goderich for lunch and had a tour of the Mount Forest and District Sports Complex. 

“Teegan got to learn how ice is made. We have a list of new things to try this summer,” Grafos said.

“It’s great to make a positive impact by providing friendship and guidance, and (being) an open and non-judgemental listener for our youth.”

Zachary Martin, a full-time University of Guelph student, said both of his parents volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters. And now volunteering is a huge part of his life. At his high school graduation in 2022, he was the recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Community Volunteer Award.

For him, being part of BBBS provides “the chance to be able to connect with and be a role model for my little brother in a one-on- one mentorship role.

“I’ve learned that my time commitment to this role has the power to have a lasting effect on the life of my little brother.”

Starting out was his biggest challenge, Martin noted.

Taking his “Little” Elyot to Canada’s Wonderland was “a huge milestone of trust – to have me looking after him at the park and being comfortable enough with that.”

Martin described volunteering with BBBS as “the opportunity of a lifetime. It is a very meaningful position to play.”

‘Life-changing friendship’

Dykeman noted, “We have the kindest, most caring volunteers who come to us with the desire to enhance a child or youth’s life and that is exactly what they do.” 

Up and away – “Big” Tasha and “Little” Teegan take to the sky.

Dykeman spoke about watching friendships grow. 

“At first they are tentative with each other as they get to know each other, but over time they develop a closeness and friendship that can often carry on way past their promotion from our program,” Dykeman said. “It can be a life-changing friendship for both the volunteer and the child.”

Christie said, “Without the generous support of the community, the organization would not survive. 

“If Big Brothers Big Sisters can provide every young person who is struggling with a supportive Big Brother or Big Sister Mentor, individuals will thrive, communities will prosper, and the future is promising.”

Lorie Black