In 1904, a young New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter noticed more and more boys were coming through his courtroom. He believed that if these boys had caring adults in their lives, many of them would stay out of trouble. His determination to connect the boys with role models is what sparked the Big Brothers movement.
Around this same time, a group called Ladies of Charity was working to help give girls who found themselves in the New York Children’s Court more opportunity. These women volunteers later became known as Catholic Big Sisters.
Both sets worked independently until 1977 when the two joined forces to become Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, an organization that today is in all 50 states and 12 countries worldwide.
Now, more than 100 years later, studies have shown kids matched with a Big Brother or Big Sister are more confident, more likely to avoid drugs and alcohol, do better in school and get along better with family and friends.
BBBS in Central Arkansas
The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas organization has been creating and supporting one-on-one mentoring relationships and igniting the power and promise of youth for 50 years.
“The major goal of being a positive role model for kids has always been there. I think kids in our community probably need a positive role model now more than ever,” says Tracy Matson, BBBSCA executive director. “I truly believe that when you become a mentor to a child in this community you are investing in the future of central Arkansas.”
As the largest children’s mentoring organization in central Arkansas, BBBSCA believes in defending the potential it sees in this community’s youth. It provides children and mentors the essential tools they need to develop lifelong, purposeful relationships.
“Mentoring leads to better relationships, less truancy, less violent behavior, less drug abuse, etc. As adults, alumni of our mentoring program report that being involved with BBBS led them to be happier as adults with positive influences on their personal and professional lives. It can truly be a positive experience that lasts a lifetime,” Matson says.
The organization feels it is more than just one-on-one mentoring, though. It sees its work of shaping young, future leaders prepared to take on whatever comes their way as a way of life.
“Everyone associated with BBBSCA has worked extremely hard at getting back out in the community, showing everyone what we do and the important role our agency plays in our community,” Matson says. “We have a great staff, an enthusiastic board of directors and an ever-growing group of Bigs who are determined to make a difference in a child’s life.”
In BBBS lingo, adults are called “Bigs” and the children they mentor are called “Littles.” Any child in central Arkansas between the ages of 6 and 14 can become a Little. Parents and guardians are involved throughout the process by providing information about their child’s strengths and needs, approving the selection of their child’s Big and communicating with BBBSCA staff about outings with Bigs and their child’s progress and milestones.
Morris Williams Jr., now retired from Entergy, became involved with BBBSCA in 2010.
“My fraternity’s international headquarters – Omega Psi Phi – adopted BBBS as one of our mandated programs,” he says. “At that time, I was the president of our local chapter here in Little Rock, so I decided to lead by example by completing the application to become a Big.”
He volunteered as a Big until 2016, and now he serves on the board.
“I think BBBS is important because they give the kids waiting to be matched with a Big Brother or Big Sister the opportunity to have a one-on-one experience with a Big,” Williams says. “Sometimes the matches can lead to a lifelong relationship. I still have a great relationship with my former Little and his family.”
The process to become a Big is simple. The applicant fills out a little paper work, provides references and participates in a 90-minute training session. After the organization runs its background check, an assignment is made.
The first meeting can be a little awkward, but Matson says that’s normal.
“Our team takes great pride in matching Bigs and Littles who share similar interests,” Matson says. “After the initial butterflies have vanished, the vast majority of our meetings go very well and are the beginning of a very rewarding relationship.”
Just like in any relationship, the more you put into it, the more it grows and the more you get out of it.
According to Williams, being a Big is a good opportunity to make a difference in a young person’s life by helping them in their journey and, in turn, is significantly rewarding.
“My favorite story is when I took my Little on a surprise road trip to Dallas to attend an NBA game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Sacramento Kings,” he says. “We hung out with my son and grandson. He thoroughly enjoyed it. We had courtside seats and the trip was priceless!”
A Fresh Perspective
“I have seen the impact [BBBS] has on children first-hand through my sister-in-law,” says Ashlei King, co-anchor of FOX 16’s Good Day Arkansas and BBBSCA's newest board member. “She has been matched with her Little for a few years now. Last year on Thanksgiving, his mom had to work, so he would have been home all day by himself. My sister-in-law brought her Little to our family Thanksgiving dinner. We ate and played games; he even won some money from a game. When he left, he called his mom and told her how much fun he had.”
Throughout her career, King has reported on the work of BBBSCA many times. She saw how the organization was changing the trajectory of children’s lives and knew she wanted to contribute, too.
A “two-way street” is how she describes what it’s like to volunteer as a Big.
“Being a mentor can be a scary thing, but it is a rewarding thing,” King says. “I have interviewed countless Bigs who all tell me they have learned so much from their Littles. Many of them thought they were getting into this so they could make an impact in a child’s life, but the child ends up making an impact in their life as well.”
The BBBS organization believes that through partnerships with parents, volunteers and others in the community, everyone is responsible for each child’s achievement of higher aspirations, greater confidence, better relationships, avoidance of risky behaviors and educational success.
“BBBS gives kids a role model that doesn’t live in their own home. The organization helps mold children into productive adults,” King says.
Looking to the future, BBBSCA hopes to serve more and more kids each year and to continue to be an active organization central Arkansas is proud of and wants to support.
“I always tell people they need no special skills to be a Big. They need a passion for kids and a desire to make a positive impact in a child’s life,” Matson says. “These relationships mean so much to the kids we serve, but I always hear from our Bigs that it makes a huge difference in their lives as well. More times than not, these relationships tend to be lifelong.”
Today, BBBSCA serves 85 youth but there are currently 102 Little Brothers who are waiting to be matched with a Big Brother.
“BBBS strives to make sure every child has a chance to reach their full potential. We need the community’s help in order to achieve this goal,” King says. “We are always looking for Bigs, especially men. I challenge people to jump out of their comfort zone and become a Big.”
“Whether it’s becoming a mentor, being a donor to our agency or volunteering at our events,” Matson says, “I believe our organization is one that, once you join our team, you will see the benefits and be glad you became a part of it.”
How to be a Big during COVID-19
Believe it or not, now is the perfect time to become a Big.
“COVID-19 has impacted us much like it has everyone else. Our staff is primarily working from home,” Matson says. “As for its effect on our matches, we have encouraged our Bigs to stay in contact with their Littles weekly. We remind them that relationships continue to grow and be meaningful in the absence of in-person contact.”
While under normal circumstances, matches go to ballgames or movies, on hikes, bowling or scrapbooking, BBBSCA has encouraged virtual meetings and provided ideas for how to make those meetings fun for everyone involved.
Matson suggests FaceTime calls or activities like reading a book together and discussing it as you go as ways to keep in touch during these important days when Littles (and Bigs) are experiencing more stress.