Big Brother

By Michelle Szemanski, The Hardware Store

This year Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh celebrates 50 years of mentorship. That’s 50 years of empowering relationships that foster support, growth, and confidence in children across Allegheny, Washington, and Greene counties. The program matches adult volunteers with disadvantaged kids, often from low-income, single-parent homes. “Bigs” offer their “Littles” guidance and support, creating structure and a safe place in the Little’s life to confront challenges, work towards their dreams, and develop resiliency.

Since its inception in 1965, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh has adapted to the changing needs of its volunteers and kids. The launch of Mentor2.0 offers a modern version of traditional mentorship, connecting Bigs to their Littles in the classroom through email. When most people think of Big Brothers Big Sisters, time spent one-on-one between Bigs and Littles comes to mind. The Mentor2.0 program doesn’t displace the traditional program, but creates another way for mentors to forge meaningful connections with a Little.

Harley Baldwin White-Wiedow, Vice President of Design at Schell Games, was already experienced in mentoring the Schell Games design team, but didn’t think she could fit Big Brothers Big Sisters into her professional life until she learned about Mentor2.0. The new program enables Harley to reach out to her Little, offering advice on planning for college or prepping for a job interview. The emails are guided by weekly prompts, but also serve as the basis for a trusting relationship. Bigs in Mentor2.0 meet the Littles once a month at a school-sponsored event. The one-on-one time leverages the shared understanding they gained through the convenience of technology for a lasting connection.

Christopher Arnold, General Counsel at Schell Games, describes the impact the emails can have. With these kids, “Everything’s possible, but everything feels like it’s impossible to achieve,” Chris says. Mentorship helps break down a dream into bite-sized pieces: something a Little can do today that will eventually click into the big picture. Sometimes that picture can be surprising. “Half of the time I’m just listening and being open. My Little leads the way, and sometimes I nudge him in the right direction,” Chris says. The conversation alone tells Littles that their efforts matter, and provides a foundation for their confidence and initiative.

Mentor2.0 also reminds the mentors of what it’s like to decide on a direction and figure out how to get there. “Even when you have the advantages, it’s not easy to grow up, go to college, and get to doing what you hoped you could do,” says Harley. The presence of an educated professional in a Little’s life makes it easier to visualize what that future could be. When a kid has that spark and runs up against a setback or loses sight of the big picture, her Big is there to say ‘keep going.’ The path to success takes different turns for everyone, and the relationship between a Big and a Little reminds them both that the steps are worth taking.

Voted National Agency of the Year in 2012, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh continues to grow, adapt, and nurture enduring relationships every year. However, no program addition can replace the need for volunteers, especially men. While female volunteers are more readily available, many boys in the program are on the waiting list for a male mentor. Whether through community-based or site-based programs or through Mentor2.0, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh can guide interested volunteers through the process and provide support along every step of the way. Individual volunteers and companies like Schell Games can help by recommending the programs to others through word-of-mouth or inviting Big Brothers Big Sisters team members into their offices for a casual and informative discussion, such as a Lunch & Learn.

This article was originally published in teQ Magazine

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.