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Mentoring over Zoom: Big Brothers Big Sisters continues its work

In Champaign-Urbana, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Illinois (BBBSCIL) runs a community-based mentoring programing in which Bigs (mentors) connect with their Littles (mentees) by going out into the community and engaging in an activity that they both enjoy. Bigs and Littles are matched according to their hobbies, interests, availability, and personalities. They usually get together once every other week. The program is free for kids’ families (ages five to 13 or 14) and families often enroll if they want another view point for their child or another person for them to ask for advice. Sometimes the kid really likes sports but the parent doesn’t. That’s where a Big who is dedicated, consistent, with great communication skills and an interest in sports can be a great match.

Pre-COVID-19, Bigs and Littles attended activities like ice skating, or gathered at places like Curtis Orchard. This year, BBBSCIL had to reinvent their entire programming calendar.

A woman has her arm around a preteen girl. They are both smiling. The girl is holding a gift bag with snowflakes on it. Photo provided by Aravinda Garimella.

Aravinda Garimella and her Little Iy’Jah Grant pre-COVID. Photo provided by Aravinda Garimella.

Aravinda Garimella, a Big Sister in Champaign County has gotten creative when figuring out ways to stay connected to her Little, Iy’Jah Grant. Garimella states, “Iy’Jah and I have found a wide range of activities that we enjoy virtually. She loves doing Mad Libs, so we do that often over Zoom. Not only do we share a lot of laughs, but also, it has proven to be an excellent way for Iy’Jah to work on her language skills. I am now confident she can explain the functions of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs like a pro! Sometimes, we also do pottery painting together using to-go kits from The Pottery Place.”

Elaine Ackert, Case Manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Champaign County, explained that Bigs like Garimella were a source of innovative ideas and activities once COVID-19 hit.  BBBSCIL has been around for over 30 years, but figuring out how to continue, support, and deepen mentoring relationships during COVID-19 times was nothing they could have prepared for. Yet, Ackert said that the social distancing restrictions have made BBBSCIL more flexible, hosting multiple virtual volunteer orientations a month. Additionally, it is easier to schedule interviews over Zoom with parents and kids who want to join the program.

Other ideas that Bigs have come up with include writing letters the old-fashioned way so that they are essentially pen pals with their Littles, and Bigs buying or checking out books from the library that they think their Littles will like. Some also went on socially distanced walks but as of Friday, November 11th, per the Illinois order, BBBSCIL decided that it was in the best interests of everyone in the program to discontinue in-person, socially distanced meetings for the time being.

Instead, BBBSCIL employees are revving up their virtual offerings. Another unexpected benefit is that Bigs and Littles from different regions of Central Illinois are able to connect and meet. Pre-COVID-19 they had regional events every month or every other month but these were in person and the participants usually attended the events in their own specific area. Now, BBBSCIL offers regular Zoom gatherings and invite all matches in Central Illinois.

“Tuesday night from 4-8 p.m., you and your Little can jump into our Zoom call. We might have a fun activity for you to do, we might have a conversation like an icebreaker for you guys to talk about. But it’s going to be a space so the volunteer isn’t struggling to coordinate something. We’re going to hold that space for them. We’ve also been planning some pretty cool virtual activities for our littles,” Ackert said. Those activities include a pumpkin decorating party and an upcoming ginger bread house decorating Zoom party in December.

They have also increased programming when it comes to training. BBBSCIL has offered more training sessions — one on mental health for parents and Bigs and one with speakers from colleges talking about financial aid and college requirements directed toward parents. They also host virtual social hours for Bigs where mentors can troubleshoot or ask for advice about connecting with their Littles.

One aspect of COVID-19 that has led to a huge challenge is fundraising. BBBSCIL’s main source of revenue was in-person fundraisers like Bowl for Kids’ sake which is usually held in the spring. They have a $400,000 deficit from where they would be normally, so they are experimenting with a new fundraiser.

Ackert said: “We just kicked off our Cash for Kids’ Sake fundraiser, which is our new raffle. This is completely new to us, it just started November 1st, and it’s going to be running through the end of January. Raffle tickets are $100 each, and that’s going to enter you into a drawing with 40 chances to win. There are 20 prizes of $100…there are 10 prizes that are at least $1,000 or over. And our grand pilot grand prize drawing is $50,000. We’re selling 2500 tickets across all of Central Illinois. Anybody can purchase, you have to be 18 or older to purchase them, but you don’t have to live in Central Illinois to purchase them.”

I asked Ackert about the mentors — whether she had new mentors since COVID-19, people who had a little more time on their hands and wanted to give back by becoming a Big. Ackert said that yes, there are mentors who have just been matched since social distancing began. People had more flexibility during COVID-19 and realized that this must be hard for kids.

Right now, there are 75-80 matches in Champaign County, which includes Rantoul, and 45 kids waiting to be matched. Overall, their matches are down a bit from where they were pre-COVID-19. Some were matched during COVID-19 and some have been together for 10 years. There were Bigs who had to drop out because of job insecurities or too much going on. Right now, BBBSCIL is offering no commitment virtual informational sessions about volunteer opportunities.

Garimella and Grant have been matched for almost two years.

Garimella said, “From our early interactions, it was clear to me that Iy’Jah was a bright, curious girl who was willing to try anything. We took an origami class at the Japan House, a pie baking class at the Parkland College, and a 3-D printing class at the Maker Lab at the Gies College of Business, and Iy’Jah thoroughly enjoyed each one of these activities. Iy’Jah is a talented football player and wrestler (she has competed at the state level in wrestling), so I tried to attend as many of her matches as possible.”

To learn more, go to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Illinois website or their Facebook page.

Top photo provided by Elaine Ackert.

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