What Does It Take to Be a Big Brother or Sister?
By Chris Valdez 

Did You Know …

Research conducted by Big Brothers Big Sisters has found that, compared to their peers, children benefiting from a Big Brother or Big Sister are:

• 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs and 27 percent less likely to start drinking.

• 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school and 37 percent less likely to skip class.

• More trusting of their parents and guardians and less likely to lie to them. They also feel more supported and less criticized by their peers and friends.

• Almost 1/3 less likely to resort to violence as a means of solving problems
Looking for a Few Good ‘Big’s

Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America is the largest and (now completing its 100th year) oldest organization of its kind. Currently, more than 220,000 children ranging from age 5 through 18 are part of its national mentoring program, which matches kids from single-parent households with adults from the community who are able to spend some quality time with them. But there are still thousands of kids – "Littles" - who remain unmatched – waiting for a volunteer to become their "Big."

So why have volunteers for these great kids become so scarce?

Myth 1: Children Who Need “Bigs” are Big Trouble.

Many people assume that “Littles,” children who are in need of a Big Brother or Sister, are at-risk kids who have been given up on – but that’s a myth, says Stephanie Powell, Volunteer Coordinator for BBBS Greater Houston. “These are just latch-key kids. Unfortunately, their parents might have to work two jobs or are physically handicapped, and [they] can’t get out and play.”

This misconception is one of several that seem to prevent people from volunteering for the program. The biggest obstacle that BBBS faces in drawing more volunteers, says Powell, is getting people to take that first step toward helping out.

Myth 2: It’s Too Difficult to Get Started.
BBBS works directly with schools and private companies in corporate partnerships. Companies agree to grant their employees time from their work week to visit their “Little” during the school day and children get the opportunity to see where their mentor works and join in on holiday activities.

There’s also “Couples Match,” a program where married couples can give a child the opportunity to see the dynamic of a dual-parent household. For a child who has never seen a family function this way, it can help make a similar future for them seem more attainable.

Myth 3: It Takes Too Much Time.
The actual time commitment required of BBBS volunteers is quite small – only an hour or two each week for the minimum of one year. However, Powell says many people enjoy spending much more time with their “Littles” than they ever anticipated.

For those who might not able to commit to a full year, BBBS also accepts volunteers for any of their fairs, picnics, galas or fishing trips.

Myth 4: It Comes Out of Your Pocket.
Money is not a factor in volunteering. BBBS prefers that “Bigs” not spend money on their “Littles;” the organization offers free movie passes and event tickets when these are available. Bonds can be formed over everyday tasks. Working in the yard, taking a walk or cooking a meal are just a few of the activities BBBS encourages.

Myth 5: Being a ‘Big’ Means Being a Parent.
“Most people don’t understand what a ‘big’ really is. [“Bigs”] are mentors. They’re not step-in parents, therapists or officers of the law,” says Powell. “If you can walk a dog or just sit down and color, you can be a mentor.”

Though “Bigs” don’t act as parents, they do have the power to make a profound difference in children’s lives by simply giving them the gift of feeling good about themselves.

“[These children] just want someone to be proud of them,” says Powell. “When kids don’t have that, it reflects in their grades and their attitudes.”

“Only 73 percent of Texas high school students graduate,” notes Katy Ford, CEO of BBBS Greater Houston. “Dropouts don’t just happen in high school; dropouts start in the 3rd grade.”

BBBS measures its progress by the level of confidence achieved in the children it serves, Ford says. When children are inspired by their mentors to complete homework assignments and to face everyday problems, there’s a lasting impact. 

‘Everyone Knows How to Be a Friend’

Stephanie Powell recalled the time a little boy she didn’t know came running into her office screaming “I got to touch a dog! I got to touch a dog,” as he wrapped his arms around her waist. He had been newly matched, and his “Big Brother” had introduced the boy to his golden retriever.

It just goes to show how easy it is to be a Big Brother or Sister, Powell says. “Everyone knows how to be a friend.” 

To get involved in child’s life today, take the first step and find your local Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.

Chris Valdez is an Editorial Intern at
Houston Family, a United Parenting Publication.
September 2004.