Big Brothers, Big Sisters – the organisation that matches mentors with young people who need a caring adult outside of their own family to interact with – is looking to up its reach in rural New Zealand.
BBBS national CEO Drew Ewan says farmers have a lot to offer youngsters, especially those from towns who may not have had much experience with the rural way of life. And benefits of stronger links could cut both ways, with farmers being able to showcase to young people the satisfaction and career opportunities that come with an outdoors life growing crops and raising animals to put food on others’ tables.
In 1904, a young New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter observed more and more boys appearing before the judge. He recognised that caring adults could help many of these kids stay out of trouble. At about the same time, the members of a group called Ladies for Charity were befriending girls who had come through the New York Children’s Court.
These two initiatives marked the beginning of what has become an international organisation, operating in 13 countries and serving nearly 300,000 children in need.
In New Zealand, the first Big Brothers Big Sisters programme was established in Dannevirke in 1996, closely followed by another in Nelson in 1997. Some 25 years later, the BBBS programme and 35 mentoring supervisors have linked more than 1,000 volunteer mentors with more than 3,500 Kiwi kids.
In the same year that the fledgling programme in Nelson got underway, Drew was using seed funding from the government to set up a youth mentoring programme in West Auckland. He’s been involved in mentoring for over 16 years here and in Queensland.
Time and again he’s witnessed how a caring tuakana/mentor can be a circuit-breaker in a troubled youngster’s life, simply by hanging out with him/her, being a positive influence and someone they can talk to.
“I’ve been involved in youth organisations that have professionals working hard with the young people, trying to support them. Then a mentor comes along and sort of makes a break-through, just by hanging out and enjoying activities with them.
“The mentor has no set agenda, no back history with the young person. When you’re a parent and you see your son or daughter struggling, you often try and push things…Our mentors aren’t trying to achieve anything in particular so there’s no pressure or heavy expectations on the youngster,” Drew says.
“It’s amazing how a friendship and ‘hanging out’ with an adult who cares is so often the key to young people breaking out of some challenging times. They gain confidence, start to fit in better with their peers, find out who they are – we call it igniting their potential.”
While a majority of the mainly 6-12 year-olds on the programme are from single parent families, Big Brothers, Big Sisters cross all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, family wealth, etc.
“It might just be a youngster under stress, or having some conflicts with their mum or dad – or both.
“An external person can just make that different connection.”
Mentors and Little Brothers, Little Sisters decide together what they want to do, with parental approval. It can involve as little as an hour a week.
BBBS actually discourages mentors from spending a lot of money on outings. The goal of the relationship is friendship. Activities can be as simple as playing board games, buying a comic book to read to each other, a car trip with the radio on while you discuss music.
Programmes are already running in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, the Waikato, Rotorua, Whakatane, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, Manawatu, Nelson, Westland and North Canterbury.
BBBS and Drew are in the final stages of discussions with a major agriculture sector organisation on sponsorship and increased outreach into rural areas. If it gets the green light, it will involve a pilot initiative in Te Awamutu involving members of the organisation’s staff going into a primary school during school time to interact with youngsters they’ve been matched with.
Drew says if that trial goes well, it would be rolled out in other parts of the country. And there would be a second prong involving farmers, where their matched Little Brother or Little Sister (more than likely high school-aged) would come out to the farm for some exposure to that way of life.
Outside of the arrangements under discussion, Drew says Big Brothers, Big Sisters is happy to talk to any farmer or rural community keen to be involved.
“We’ll work with them and obviously we’ll try and get some funding to pay for a local co-ordinator.”
The BBBS national office only has three staff. Drew says the organisation runs on a shoestring so that resources are focused on the “front line”.
“On average, it costs about $1800 per match, per year to meet co-ordinator and other costs.”
In Canada, the government meets half of BBBS’s costs, and Drew is hoping to get the Government here in NZ to step up and provide more funding support for mentoring in the coming years.
“The gains to be had from early intervention in the lives of young people going off the rails a bit – nipping problems in the bud before they become much tougher issues to deal with – is pretty much universally acknowledged.
“The value that mentoring programmes bring to young people and the community across New Zealand deserves more recognition and funding so our services can be offered to all regions of the country.”
- For more information, visit bigbrothersbigsisters.org.nz