BIG, BIG HEARTS
Margaret Ayres (Executive Director), Jane Gibbens (In-school Mentor), Aarin Oulton (Little Sister), Bob Shepherd (Mayor of Uxbridge and In-school Mentor), Derick Oulton (Little Brother), Catherine Oulton (parent), Larry O’Connor (Mayor of Township of Brock and In-school Mentor), Sharon Murdoch (Director of Mentoring).
When you’re a child, nothing can replace the blissful feeling of genuine companionship.
Whether it’s a buddy to go skateboarding with, do homework with or simply catch up with over a movie, having a special someone, apart from a parent or guardian, to simply laugh and share thoughts with is invaluable.
Just ask Aarin Oulton and her brother, Derick Oulton, whose eyes light up the second you mention their “Big Sister” and “Big Brother.” As members of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Durham community-based program, both Aarin and Derick are more than thrilled to have their own special friend and mentor to share their interests with.
So while Aarin likes to enjoy ‘girl time’ in the form of movie nights with her Big Sister... Derick and his Big Brother can take part in more ‘manly’ excursions, like ice fishing in Lake Simcoe, watching “old time hockey” games and going out for wings.
Though their idea of fun may differ, both children agree - without hesitation - that spending time with their Big Brother and Big Sister is “awesome!”
Their mother, Catherine, is just as ecstatic that Aarin and Derick have healthy adult role models to look up to. “I’m the type of person that believes you can never have too many positive influences in your life,” she says, explaining that after moving from New Brunswick and not knowing many people, “It was nice to have Big Brothers and Big Sisters to bring them (her children) out of their shell.”
The notion that a mentor can help build a child’s self-confidence and resilience is one of the founding principles of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Children (often referred to as “Littles,” are ages 6 to 16) and adult role models (“Bigs,” over 18) are matched one-on-one according to personality traits and interests. In creating this special bond, the agency strives to enhance the lives of young people through the power of positive, non-judgemental companionship.
Located on Simcoe Street, Port Perry, Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Durham has been “creating friendships since 1976” and it prides itself on providing an umbrella of support to children, parents and mentors.
“We are not trying to replace somebody and we’re not suggesting that parents aren’t giving their children everything they need,” says Sharon Murdoch, Director of Mentoring, speaking about the popular assumption that there is a specific family profile for their programs.
Whether children are coming from a single parent or dual parents, Sharon says, “We’re offering children something different... we give them exposure to different experiences.”
And when it comes to providing guidance and support for children, the team behind Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Durham insists that everyone – no matter their age, profession or skill set - has something meaningful to contribute.
“Here we like to focus on everyone’s great qualities, not their deficits,” Sharon explains. With an ever-growing wait list of children looking for mentors, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Sharon says she always encourages people to reconsider the so-called “barriers” (such as lack of time or inexperience with children) that prevent them from getting involved.
“Anything is better than nothing at all,” she says, adding that in addition to Big Brothers Big Sisters, the agency offers other programs that allow more flexibility with time and commitment.
In-school mentoring, for instance, is a program that runs in partnership with the Durham District School Board. During school hours, volunteer “mentors” meet with a “mentee” in their school environment to participate in fun-filled activities that enhance the child’s self-esteem and school performance.
Simply put: one hour, once a week with one child. While it may seem like a meagre effort, Sharon assures, “A whole dedicated hour is really significant to a child.”
Larry O’Connor, Mayor of the Township of Brock, is all too familiar with the restraints a busy schedule can place on spare time. “I wanted to get involved but knew being a Big Brother wouldn’t work,” he says. “The in-school mentor program appealed to me because it was flexible and would work with my schedule.”
Larry decided to become a part of the agency’s new initiative, Mayors as Mentors. In addition to his role as a mentor, he has dedicated his efforts to “spreading the good word” at the various political and social functions he attends. “ Its incredible role modelling for the community,” adds Sharon. “Larry is busy but he finds the time.”
Bob Shepherd, Mayor of Uxbridge, (also part of Mayors as Mentors) and Jane Gibbens are two in school mentors that insist they get just as much out of the experience as the children. “I learned how to text!” jokes Bob and Jane adds that, while one day she may be learning how to play chess or a new computer game, the next day she’s “taking shots” playing hockey.
For many volunteers, Sharon explains, spending time with their mentees is just like being a kid again. “It allows you to re-explore things you don’t usually have time for as an adult,” she says.
And while some volunteers initially express concerns about their age being a barrier, Sharon insists age is never an issue for children. “Kids are drawn to honesty and genuine people,” she says. “All that matters is that you have the right spirit.”
Bob admits that at first he was apprehensive about the sweeping age gap between himself and his mentee. He worried that establishing a connection with someone so much younger than him would be a struggle. “But I realized it’s about sharing what you have,” he says. “I’m young at heart,” he says with a laugh.
He remembers the moment his mentee reassured him that age was not a barrier. It was a typical Thursday afternoon meeting and his mentee had just taught him how to send and receive texts. After their meeting, on his way back to work, Bob received a text from his mentee that read, “I really love this Thursday thing.” Instantly, Bob says all his initial anxieties were lifted.
Although Bob and countless other volunteers prove that age is not a barrier, other concerns, such as a lack of experience with children, might make an individual feel unsuited for the role. If such is the case, in-school mentoring provides an extra backbone of support for volunteers.
As a mentor to two mentees, one at Joseph Gould School and another at Goodwood School, Jane Gibbens knows from personal experience just how proactive some schools are with the mentoring program. She says that because the school board has recognized the importance of the program, the guidance volunteers receive from the school staff makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
“The teachers are really great,” she says, adding that, with the in-school mentoring program in particular, volunteers have that extra cushion of support from the school.
And it is the increased assistance of the school staff - including a designated “school liaison” in charge of matching mentors and mentees and who regularly monitors and reports back to the agency - that brings an added comfort for those who may be new to volunteering.
In fact, as Sharon explains, it is very common for people to use mentoring as the “first step in getting involved.” After familiarizing themselves with the agency and witnessing first-hand how fulfilling and enjoyable it is to dedicate their time to a child, many volunteers transition over to the more traditional, community-based program.
While the mentoring program requires a commitment of at least one school year, Sharon says the hope is that a successful match will continue for many years. “We strive for a knock out of the park!” she says, referring to the careful process of matching a child and adult. “Mentors and mentees are paired based on intentions and interests,” she says. “We take all considerations into account, including lifestyle and interests, which is why we have a long wait list.”
Sharon also adds that the agency does not simply match a prospective child with the most recent volunteer. “There is a lot of faith in the agency. We have a lot of responsibility and we take serious action towards mentoring,” she explains.
When going through the process of matching a child and volunteer, “We rely very heavily on references,” says Sharon. “The interview process allows us to use our own judgements but the parent’s impression is paramount.”
As a foundation that receives no government funding, Sharon and her co-worker Executive Director, Margaret Ayres, rely heavily on the success of their fundraising events, such as ‘Wing Night,’ which sells out every February and ‘Bowl for Kid’s Sake,’ which successfully brought in $10,000 in 2004. The agency is also thankful for its generous corporate sponsors, including Investor’s Group, Dana’s Goldsmith, Trimark, AOL, and Muttart Foundation.
Upcoming events that are open to the community include a picnic in Oshawa’s Lakeview Park on September 19th. With a BBQ, activities and games, “It’s a great opportunity for parents and mentors to meet,” explains Sharon, adding that the event encourages families to come out and learn all about the agency’s various programs.
Tickets for the organization’s first ‘Halloween Mascarade Party’ will be available in September. All community members are more than welcome to attend.
In addition to monetary funds, Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Durham is also in need of material donations, such as toys, games, books and school supplies.
Such items can be dropped off at their office location: 15585 Simcoe Street, Port Perry (Scout Hall). For more information, call 905-985-3733.
By Christina Coughlin
Focus on Scugog