I was first exposed to the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program almost ten years ago. As much as I wish I could say it was because I witnessed an inspiring connection between a Big and a Little, it was really because the secondary love interest for Katherine Heigl in the 2008 film 27 Dresses had a Little. He was used for a few plot points.
In the time between then and now, I went to a Catholic high school where a certain number of volunteer hours were a requirement for graduation. I reached my quota through being the fun young volunteer who enthusiastically shouted bingo numbers at a local nursing home. When I left for college, I thought I would not only miss a few residents, but volunteering as a whole.
This past fall, I turned into every Locust flyer shift person’s dream and collected all of the brightly colored pieces of paper that the smiling, shouting people threw at me. I saw the BBBS one, thought of Katherine Heigl’s almost–husband and figured I’d give it a shot and apply.
The application process to be a Big is pretty intense—the organization has to run extensive background checks, hold an interview, reach out to listed references, call family members and ask you to fill out a detailed questionnaire to best match you with your Little. For me, this took about five months, which is pretty average and maybe even on the faster side. This may seem a little excessive, but when working with little kids who have self–identified as people in need of mentors, this process is absolutely necessary to ensure their safety and guarantee the best match possible. The process for Littles is similar, with an online application that a parent or guardian has to fill out, after which the potential Little is sat down for an interview. My Little waited two years before she was finally matched with me.
“Sometimes it can take a long time,” said Dominique McKnight (C'17), president of the Penn chapter of BBBS. “Like, there are people who applied semesters ago and still don’t have a Little, but for me it happened really fast.”
The same went for Jasmine Li (W'18) who has been with her Little for about a year and a half. “I finally got matched with my Little, Erin, like two Novembers ago and ever since, I’ve been meeting with her once a week on average, maybe for about an hour and a half,” said Jasmine. When she and Erin hang out, they spend their time playing board games, doing homework and just catching up. BBBS aims to create clear boundaries for the relationship, so students are only allowed to visit their Littles at school during either lunch hours or during established after school programs. This means summertime visits are off–limits, even if Bigs and Littles are both in Philadelphia; texting, emailing and FaceTiming are all okay though.
Normally, though, the time Bigs and Littles do get to spend together is well worth the weeklong separation. "[My Little] makes me enjoy the experience, I feel, as much as I make him enjoy it. He makes me laugh and I make him laugh, and I see a little me in him, so I just enjoy that part,” said Taheeb Sonekan (W'20), who was only matched with his Little about a month ago.
What differentiates BBBS from a lot of other programs is the emphasis on long–term one–on–one encounters. When I first met my Little, she was required to read aloud a contract of the expectations of the relationship.
It was essentially a set of rules about accountability and consistency, and I had to read a similar one to her in the presence of our program's supervisor. One of the points on it was that she would never ask me if she could bring her friends to join in when I come visit to fully respect the time we have together.
“There’s a lot of different programs where you just visit a school and play with a bunch of different kids, but then for this program, you can really just have the opportunity to focus on a single child, and that’s how, I think, you can make a very strong impact,” said Jasmine.
The focus on a single Little throughout a Big's time in the program allows for the bond to grow pretty naturally and definitely pays off over the course of the match. “My sophomore year she was really, for lack of a better term, rambunctious. I know that’s like, a puppy term, but she was running around all the time and wanted to play tag, and that wasn’t really my thing,” said Dominique. “It has definitely been an experience watching her grow, just from like the fifth grade to the seventh grade, she’s matured so much. I like to think that I had a little to do with that, and that’s a really rewarding feeling.”
Unfortunately, because this is a college chapter, the matches do usually come to an end when the Big graduates, a dilemma Dominique now faces. “I can go on to be a community–based match and continue to be her Big, but it’s not guaranteed that I’ll stay in Philly. I’m trying to maneuver how I’ll handle that because she like brings it up, and I can see her get really anxious and sad, but I don’t know how to handle it yet, so that’s been pretty difficult,” said Dominique as her voice dropped. She fell silent for a bit. ”
But volunteers find that the program's benefits outweigh its drawbacks. At the very least, everyone interviewed for this piece agreed that just taking the time to get off–campus and focus on something that wasn’t school or work–related helped decrease their stress levels. Plus, it can also lead to unexpected positive outcomes like it did for Jasmine, who volunteered to coach field hockey after having such a good experience with her Little: “I think after meeting her, and experiencing that relationship, I find myself volunteering more.”
In short, the program is a pretty simple way to give kids positive and stable role models in their lives. “You’ve gotten here today, wherever you are in your life, because of someone who has helped impact you. So, it’s just an opportunity for you to help impact someone else,” said Taheeb. “I feel like the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is an opportunity for any person who has learned things throughout their life, who have had mentors in their life, had someone there for them, to give back.”