Immigrants And Refugees

Bigs & Littles Still Together, Even When They Are Apart

A BIG DIFFERENCE—Esmeralda, 11, above, and her mentor, Sara, relax on the beach at Coney Island last year. PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANA MELO/BIGS & LITTLES NYC MENTORING

This article originally appears in Catholic New York

In the Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring program, adult mentors continue nurturing their bond with their young mentees even with restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have shifted our work to also support our families and matches, not just in ensuring their relationships continue to thrive, but also that the gains the Littles have made this far remain,” Vidhya Kelly, executive director of Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring, told Catholic New York last week. “Our matches continue to stay connected visually through Zoom, Face Time, etc., and also connected to the social workers for guidance and support.” The nonprofit agency, known as Catholic Big Sisters and Big Brothers until two years ago, is an affiliate of archdiocesan Catholic Charities. 

Mrs. Kelly said efforts seek to ensure that the needs of children and youths are nurtured socially, emotionally and academically. “It was founded in 1902 under the Catholic values of the Ladies of Charity,” she said, noting that mentors and the youths’ families are from all faiths. The mentor/mentee matches total 220, up from about 150 five years ago. The youths come from low-income families, many of which receive support services through Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring, and most are single-parent households.

Among the matches are Fernando, 13, of Coney Island, and his mentor, Haim, 32, of Manhattan. Their Bigs & Littles match began last August. Fernando and his sister reside with their father, who is divorced. (The agency, based on policy, requested that last names not be used). 

“It’s very, very, very good,” Fernando told CNY in describing his mentor/mentee relationship with Haim.

“And I can still connect with him,” the thankful teen said of their online contacts, adding that a visit to the Museum of Natural History was one favorite past activity. Fernando has ADHD and had been struggling with his behavior in school, but is now doing much better, thanks to his enrollment in a special education school, organizers said. He enjoys being active and likes all kinds of sports, especially basketball and soccer. He also likes watching YouTube and playing games on his tablet.

Haim, who recently married, works for Porter & Sail as a director of product. He is Brazilian-born and received his MBA from MIT’s Sloane School of Management. He enjoys being outdoors, participating in sports activities and going to the movies. He learned about Bigs & Littles through the MIT Alumni Newsletter. Before the Covid-19 crisis, Haim and Fernando went to the movies and rode bikes, and attended the agency’s International Night. 

“For me, there’s nothing like creating a special bond with a kid and a family who could use that extra help,” Haim said. “So when I heard of the amazing work that Bigs & Littles is doing, I had no doubts…More than ever, I think we need to be there for one another. This is a hard moment for all of us, impacting us in different ways.

“With Fernando, we’ve been exploring and finding different ways to connect and go through this together even when separate, physically.”  Fernando’s sister Esmeralda, 11, and Esmeralda’s mentor, Sara, 40, of Brooklyn, began their Bigs & Littles match two years ago.

“My favorite part is connecting with her. She’s like the most kindest person in the world,” Esmeralda said. “She has a big heart, not because she takes me everywhere. She just brings me so much joy.” Coordinators said Esmeralda loves being active, trying new foods and learning about different cultures. A highlight last year was when Sara and Esmeralda visited the Brooklyn Botanical Garden for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and they often read to each other. 

Sara is director and counsel at Mizuho Bank Ltd. She grew up in the Boston area and later in Florida. She received her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania and her law degree from George Washington University. She has been a tutor and a basketball coach. She enjoys cooking, exercising and exploring the city. She participated in her employer’s volunteer opportunities, but was looking for a more ongoing experience with one child. 

“It seemed like a great match,” Sara said of the initial setup procedures for mentoring Esmeralda. “It’s fortunate that we’ve been able to stay connected. It’s been great for me to see her maturing over these two years. We talk a lot about school; she’s getting a lot better in her reading. We haven’t been able to meet in person, so I’ve sent her some books to read while she’s at home—and we’ve been talking about that while FaceTiming.

“The program provides us (mentors) with good resources and ideas, as well as training on how to work and communicate with the kids during this pretty stressful time.”

The youths’ father, Daniel, who is Honduran-born, is a handyman but has not worked in many weeks due to the pandemic. “This program has helped my daughter and my son a great deal,” Daniel told CNY in Spanish. “This is very important…The mentors give them so much support, and they take them to many places; they always connect with them really well, and now through Zoom.”