Big Brothers Big Sisters: National Mentoring Month begins

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BRATTLEBORO — Mentors can make a big difference in a child's life, according to Kimberly Diemond.

The director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Windham County says independent studies have shown these interactions can help to improve self esteem and schoolwork, and reduce risky behaviors.

"It also opens up a child's world to different experiences they might not get in their own family, environment or community," said Diemond.

January is National Mentoring Month. The start of the new year is dedicated to thanking all the volunteers who participate but also recruiting others.

A federal grant awarded in April "allows us to create more matches," Diemond said, meaning more mentors are wanted.

The waiting list for children, which had been put on hold in late 2015 due to a lack of capacity, is back open now too. So more "littles," a term used to describe the kids in the relationship, can sign up.

"We have 63 current matches and we're in the process of creating about 10 new ones," Diemond said. "So we'll be at about 75 by the end of January and we have the ability to have at least 60 more kids through this grant."

The grant requires 110 matches over a two-year period and provides Diemond's group with $75,000 in each of those years. Prospective mentors submit an application and go through an interview process. Professional and personal references are called, and background checks are completed.

An applicant will tell Diemond's group about their likes, interests, career path and what age child they had in mind for mentoring. Kids in the program are between the ages of 6 and 18.

"Some mentors are more comfortable with the smaller kids and want to start a relationship that lasts many years," Diemond said. "So we work with the mentor based on their geographic location, comfort level with ages and kinds of children, and then the volunteer is required to complete a full year. We ask for a one-year commitment."

Meeting times vary and depend on the volunteer's schedule. Usually, a "big" and "little" meet two to four times a month for about two to four hours.

Diane Wrinn, of Guilford, has volunteered for three years now. She has mentored the same "little," 11-year-old Jaelynn Bonilla, since she started.

This summer, Wrinn took Bonilla horseback riding at Winchester Stables as free lessons were offered for "bigs" and "littles." They've also gone skiing on both water and snow.

"She's learned how to ice skate and so did I, three years ago, which was brutal," Wrinn said. "This Christmas, we made pillow cases. So she's learning how to use a sewing machine. We made apple sauce this fall. She loves to cook with me."

Bonilla also learned how to make truffles.

"Her mom said she likes to do it on her own now," Wrinn said. "That makes me feel good."

Wrinn had read about the program in articles and felt inspired.

"People always complain about everything but nobody does anything hands on," she said. "I thought, if you could just make a difference in one child's life and if everyone did that, then decided I was going to make the commitment. The kids are out of the house. I'm still waiting to be a grandparent. So it's perfect."

Wrinn said some people may be hesitant about volunteering but she recommends it. As a hairdresser, she touts the program to her clients. Her husband took her advice and became a "big" this year.

Wrinn finds her relationship with Bonilla to be meaningful.

"She knows my family, I know her family," Wrinn said. "I would definitely consider her my family."

Volunteers can sign up for one of three types of mentoring.

"Community-based programming, that's the most informal," Diemond said, describing a situation where mentors choose what to do with the child. That could be attending a sporting event or movie, hiking, biking, fishing, or doing arts and crafts. "In school-based matches, the volunteer only meets with the child during the school year, during lunch and recess. It's sort of a more structured program. They'll play board games or games on the playground, or do homework together."

A site-based program is a combination of both. School is the "primary" meeting place, Diemond said. The matches meet regularly around lunch time but also participate in community activities after school, on weekends or during vacations from school.

About 17 local businesses provide free or reduced prices for activities that "bigs" and "littles" can do together. Also available is extra training in child development, trauma-informed care, positive youth development and child safety.

A brand new initiative starting this month is called "Bigs in Blue," Diemond said of a program where 10 to 12 officers from the Brattleboro Police Department will mentor children at the Brattleboro elementary schools. The goal is to expand the pilot program throughout Windham County.

"It's great," Diemond said. "It's part of a national initiative of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America."

Brattleboro police have been "extremely supportive and willing to help out with the program," at a time where there's always a need for more mentors, she said.

Excluding "Bigs in Blue," the programs are open to all children in Windham County. The hope is to have more matches into other areas, such as Bellows Falls and Wilmington.

"We always have more children on our waiting list than we have mentors on our list for volunteering," Diemond said. "Typically we have more boys on our list because there are less men that are mentoring."

The challenge of recruiting men to serve as mentors is seen in programs all across the United States, she said.

Interested people can visit the office at 32 Walnut St. in Brattleboro or bbbsvt.org, or e-mail info@bbbsvt.org. Orientations are held the first Wednesday of every month from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America was incorporated in 1904. Diemond said the organization is the oldest and longest running mentoring program in the country. The Brattleboro affiliate has been in existence since 1975.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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