In 1971, a junior student at the University at Buffalo got involved with an organization called “Community Action Corps.” The 4,000 plus student organization placed volunteers throughout the city, and Robert Moss, a transfer student from NYC became a mentor to a child for the first time. From that one placement, Moss founded the Be-A-Friend Program, Inc. from which, Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Erie County was born.
Moss says this without even a hint of pride, “We started with one match and now we service around 700 [children] a year. We’re the second largest program in New York State in terms of number of kids served.” Moss has been the CEO of BBBS since the programs inception. He started it by getting his roommates to join him in mentoring children and his dedication to BBBS is incredible.
Asking for no thanks, he was a teacher administrator at a high school for 32 years and did his second job, CEO of BBBS, when school was let out starting at 3:05pm. If that was not enough, Moss raised a family of his own while still mentoring children. He retired five years ago and now exclusively devotes his time to the organization he started.
The organization has many programs, but their two most primary programs are their Community-Based Mentoring and Site-Based Mentoring Programs. The Community-Based Mentoring Program is the classic Big Brothers Big Sisters relationship where the Big Brother/Sister (a “Big”) picks up the Little Brother/Sister (a “Little”) from school or home and takes them on activities or just hangs out. It is a program that faces some misunderstanding, which Kevin Paris, a board member for BBBS, tries tirelessly as the mouthpiece of the organization to dispel.
“This is not something time consuming or daunting. It’s not a chore, it’s not overwhelming, it’s not a difficult task, it’s really rewarding,” says Paris. Paris himself has been a Big for the past seven years. His Little, Steven, will be turning 13 years old this year.
“I’ve seen the difference with my little brother. I’ve watched him grow into the man he’s becoming,” says Paris. He and his Little are so close, he even had him stand at his wedding. A picture of them is below and Paris says, “He’s literally my little brother.”
The biggest battle BBBS fights is the misconception that it costs money, that the match between Big and Little will be either bad or unsupervised, or that the children involved in the program are always underprivileged. “You can’t tell looking at our kids that they need anything. We could tell you stories that would break your heart, but that’s not the approach that Big Brothers Big Sisters wants to take. How can you tell the story without the kid picking up the paper the next day?” says Moss.
Alicia Bartsch, Director of Community Relations has been with the organization for ten years. She has seen the relationships between many Bigs and Littles blossom before her eyes. “Anybody that’s matched in our program… we provide agency support. We really play liaison. [We] just include a child with things we have to do. It’s just the impact that it can have on a kid’s life,” says Bartsch.
“It doesn’t cost any money to do this,” says Moss. Moss says that one-on-one mentoring is the single most effective method at prevention. Some of the statistics are: 46% less likely to start using drugs, 27% less likely to start drinking, 52% less likely to skip a day of school, 37% less likely to skip a class, and 33% less like to hit someone and be more trusting of their parents/guardians. “The people who are usually most surprised by that are the volunteers, says Bartsch. “We’ve been referred to as the premiere mentoring agency,” adds Moss.
The process for becoming a Big is really simple, first you register, then you meet with an agency representative, who picks out the right match for you, then once paired, you start meeting with your Little on a regular basis. It seems like a scary prospect, but always in the background is your agency staffer to help whenever needed. “Your [agency staffer] is always a phone call away from your Little’s family as well as the Big,” says Paris.
The agency staffer can answer questions, provide assistance, keep you informed on agency happenings and special events, and even help you plan out things you can do with your Little. There are many cases where the agency gets tickets to different sporting events or other happenings and gives them away to the Bigs to use with their Littles.
Though Community-Based is the traditional, there is also Site-Based Mentoring. It is a much more structured environment. The Bigs meet with the Littles once a week and only at the site chosen. There is a site coordinator who plans activities amongst the 12-20 Bigs and Littles, but the pairs are allowed to do their own thing if they choose.
Recently this program just got a huge boost from the University at Buffalo with thanks to Dennis Black, Vice President of Student Affairs. BBBS has a small presence on the UB campus and many students expressed interest in becoming involved. Black arranged for the University’s bus fleet to send a bus to campus to drive students to the site, meet with their Littles, then return in an hour and a half to bring them back to campus. D’Youville College also helped BBBS get more involved on the lower West Side by giving the program a site to use in their facilities.
Though a lot of college students partake in this particular program, it is mostly due to their lack of ability to pick up their Littles in cars, as many do not have one. Anyone can partake in Site-Based Mentoring, and the choice between Community-Based and Site-Based is something discussed when you first meet with an agency staffer. The decision is based on what the Big will find most comfortable.
Many of the programs take place at Buffalo Public School, including number 3, 53, 93, and Enterprise Charter School. Some of the children are underprivileged, but the people at BBBS shy away from such harsh terminology. “They’re kids. They can’t help their economic [situation],” says Paris.
“Let’s focus on who they are as an individual and let’s do everything we can,” adds Bartsch. “We don’t refer to our kids as ‘at risk,’ we prefer to refer to them as kids on the brink of success,” concludes Moss.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie County is an organization that will continue to grow and make differences in the lives of children. They have a long waiting list of kids hoping to be paired with a Big Brother or Sister. “We have such a need for big brothers,” says Bartsch, “you don’t have to change your life to change theirs. If kids grow up in a community with adults and programs like ours, they’re going to want to stay in our community.”
If you would like more information about the programs Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie County offer, please visit www.beafriend.org or call their office at 873-5833.