Mentoring New York’s struggling kids has rarely been more difficult and more needed.
Vidhya Kelly, Chief Executive Officer for Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring, a Catholic Charities agency, noted that Covid struck New York’s urban neediest the hardest. According to a study sponsored by the United Hospital Fund, of the 4,200 children who lost a parent to the pandemic in New York State, 57 percent hail from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, the boroughs where most of Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring takes place. Many of those families struggled even before Covid. The United Hospital Fund study noted that the pandemic caused 325,000 New York children to fall into poverty or near-poverty.
For 200 children served by Bigs & Littles, many from families wracked with unemployment, inadequate distance education and the spectre of illness and sometimes death, the benefit of an adult mentor can extend well beyond pizza parties and museum trips. The agency has been providing mentors to New York’s young people since 1902, backed up by studies which indicate that the best way to create successful adults is through the involvement of caring adults in the lives of young people.
“It’s not just about mentoring,” said Ms. Kelly. “If the family is not healthy, there is no program that will be long-term effective.” For Bigs & Littles, the focus is more than just one-on-one. The agency emphasizes that no child is an island. When families struggle, so do children.
In one case, a mentor talked via Zoom with a child who regularly complained about being hungry. Bigs & Littles, notified of the situation, was able to step in with food aid. It’s an example of what the agency describes as its Caring Through Covid approach.
Besides food concerns, Bigs & Littles made a pandemic impact in other ways as well. The program is open to children and teens 7 to 17 years of age, who are matched with an adult mentor. In normal times, that means twice a month get-togethers, over low-cost outings, including those sponsored by Bigs & Littles.
As Covid struck, the agency moved into Zoom programming, only to discover that many of the children it served had no access to computer technology. The agency arranged to distribute and install 40 computers.
The pandemic sparked New Yorkers’ charitable instincts. After a story about Bigs & Littles appeared in the New York Times, volunteer applications spiked. “People were trying to figure out how to be part of the solution,” said Ms. Kelly. The agency relies on volunteer mentors with a strong sense of commitment. “It’s not what many are used to,” she said. The agency moves carefully and methodically, matching mentors with young people recommended by their families.
Susan Varghese, Chief Program Officer, noted that volunteering as a mentor for Bigs & Littles requires determination. “We are looking for committed adults who have the time,” she said. Volunteers are screened and agree to provide three to five hours, twice a month, for a year. For high school students, there is a focus on preparation for college or work life. An alumni group from Columbia University sponsored visits to the school to acquaint potential applicants with the Ivy League institution, and other New York area colleges have sponsored similar programs as well.
The mentorship work continued even during the height of Covid, as students prepared for college applications and entrance exams. “The world is not stopping. Our kids still need to progress,” said Ms. Varghese.
Caring Through Covid includes not only those who experienced illness and death, but also those with unemployment concerns and families who experienced hate crimes, said Ana Melo, Senior Program Officer.
At the moment, as the agency emerges from the pandemic, there is a need for more male volunteers, said Ms. Kelly, who noted there is a need for Spanish-speakers and racial and ethnic minorities. There are currently more than 100 boys seeking mentors in the program. But the goal in general remains to find adults “who can contribute their time and make a difference,” she said.
More information on mentorship can be found on the Bigs & Littles website.