“When COVID first started, we said, ‘Wow, this is going to be really hard. How is this going to continue because it’s all about in-person connection?’” explained Vidhya Kelly, CEO of Bigs & Littles NYC, a 118-year-old nonprofit that matches youth with volunteer mentors. However, through the resilience of all those involved, the program only got stronger.
Since most of their children are black and Hispanic from low-income, single-parent households, the population hardest hit by the virus, Kelly and her team quickly realized the need to pivot their mission. Their call to action, which includes daily check-ins and raising emergency money, centers on the families’ immediate insecurities with food, housing and jobs.
Matches, which are carefully made after an extensive interview process with social workers, are known to go for a slice of pizza or a walk in the city, or even to a Broadway show or sporting event. Although these in-person get-togethers have been halted, Bigs and Littles are still connecting, only now it’s through Zoom, FaceTime, calling and texting.
An affiliate of Catholic Charities, the organization, which now has a waitlist of 100 kids, works to ensure that the bonds between their pairs will last a lifetime. “We have so many stories where our Little Brothers and Little Sisters end up being the Best Man or Maid of Honor in their Bigs’ weddings,” Kelly said.
How are you helping your families through COVID-19?
Our social workers check in with the parents and kids daily. We’ve worked really hard to raise emergency money, ensuring that every child in our program has access to a workable computer so their schooling isn’t falling short. We’re happy to say every kid in our program has a working device. Some of them are in charter schools and didn’t receive one, so we bought them ... For us, one of the things that we’ve noticed, and also with school being out, we have really become more critical than ever. Our volunteers are not clinicians, so many don’t have experience supporting families with these challenges. What’s been great is that the Bigs have been able to be a second ear for us, saying, “We talked to our Littles and their families on FaceTime and they did express these are some of the challenges they are having.”
You said that many of your Littles are raised by a single mother. What else can you tell us about the children in the program?
Our kids typically go to schools that are overcrowded where there are not enough teachers, too many kids in a classroom, and oftentimes the environments of the schools themselves aren’t healthy. So the things we really focus on in terms of outcomes for our program are social, emotional and academic. When our children are served by our organization, we look at six months, a year, and every year thereafter. Statistics like if they are promoted every year, high school graduation rate, college entry and persistence through the first year, avoidance of getting in trouble with the law, early parenting. Ultimately you can run all these programs, but if you’re not looking at what the impact is, then it doesn’t really matter. In this past year, 100 percent of our kids avoided derailing behaviors, 99 percent got promoted, 98 percent graduated from high school and 95 percent of those kids either got into college or a training program.
Give us some examples of pairs of Bigs and Littles.
We have one Big Brother, Eddie, who is 30, African American and lives in Harlem. He’s a classical pianist and actually just released an album and it went to number one on iTunes. He got matched with a 13-year-old African American boy who lives on the Lower East Side, Daniel, from a single-parent household. They have just completely grown with each other. And you can hear it when they speak. Eddie has just proven to be someone who calls when he says he’s going to call, shows up when he says he’s going to show up. He’s just exposed Daniel to so many different activities.
Savannah was diagnosed with Turner syndrome and it impacted some of her learning abilities, and she was held back. She’s really thriving since being matched with her Big Sister, Kristina, almost three years ago. And the interesting piece is that Kristina actually had a learning disability that went undiagnosed for many years, and ended up becoming a special ed teacher. And this year, Savannah made Dean’s List.
Many of your Bigs are in their 20s to 40s, but you also have some retirees who volunteer.
The sweet spot that we found in terms of age of volunteers is between 26 and 32. Because New York City is a transient area, these are folks who come in and have new jobs and just get settled, maybe not yet have their own kids. But we have also been trying to work with AARP, because people who are older have all the wisdom. They may have the time; they may be empty nesters. We ended up matching a volunteer in his 60s, an older white male, Roy, with a Hispanic Little Brother, Noel. Roy always says, “I was honest with Noel. I told him if he needed someone to play basketball with or run around with, I’m not that guy, but I said, ‘I promise to walk you all over New York City to all of the monuments, talk to you about how I grew up, what I’ve experienced. And you can ask me any question you want, and I’ll be there for you.’”
To volunteer, visit https://bigslittlesnyc.org/volunteer
To donate, visit: https://donate.onecause.com/emergencyfund_bigslittlesnyc/donate
To join their virtual annual fundraiser on June 11th, visit: https://bigslittlesnyc.org/2020bignightin