BRATTLEBORO — Kimberley Diemond, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont, knows how having a mentor can change someone's future.
"The life you're born into is not the life you have to lead," she said. "The vision of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont is that all youth achieve their full potential. Our mission is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth."
Mentors in the program are called Bigs. They share their time and their skills, hobbies, and interests with their child matches, the Littles.
"From the feedback we get," Diemond said, "mentors realize they are not just giving of themselves. They also tap into the energy and spirit of a younger generation. Some of our Littles have never left their town or state. Mentors can show a Little that the world is full of other possibilities."
Suzanna Graham, office coordinator at H&R Block, has lived that reality. She became a Little when she was 8 years old. Her Big's name was Bonnie.
"She gave me a sense of joy in a world that taught me anything but," Graham said. "I was referred through my elementary school counselor. I remember short trips to get ice cream cones. I remember the smell of bubble gum in her car. That smell brought me a sense of comfort and safety and security.
"Most memorable were the times playing board games in her living room with her brothers and sisters," Graham continued. "It was the only time I could just be a child."
The match lasted about three years, Graham said, but the effect has been life-long.
"Because of Bonnie, I felt loved and nurtured," Graham said. "I had someone in my corner, and I've grown into a strong adult."
About three years ago, Graham joined the BBBSVT board of directors in order to give back to the program.
"There are so many children on the waiting list," she said. "It's important to get them in the program when they're young. If they age out before they are matched, they're left with the feeling of being unloved, and that feeling leaves the biggest hole in anyone's heart."
Carrying out the BBBSVT mission depends on two essentials. The first is adult mentor volunteers.
Volunteer Bigs have to be at least 18 years old, willing to spend 4 to 6 hours a month with a child, and able to commit to one year in the program — the aim is longevity of the match.
"Applications to become a Big are available on our website," Diemond said. "That's the initial contact. Once the application is filed, the applicant has an interview with the staff. We do an extensive background check consisting of three layers — local, state, and national, including social media — because, obviously, the safety of our Littles is our top priority."
If the background checks are all clear, Diemond said, the potential mentor receives both in-person orientation and online training, as well as ongoing support.
"The big focus of our training is on the unique role a mentor plays as a trusted adult friend," Diemond said. "The mentor learns how to listen, how to set boundaries, how to make decisions collaboratively, how to find the Little's spark, that special quality or interest that opens potential."
The process of matching the volunteer Big to a child takes about four months. Male mentors are especially needed, Diemond said.
"Seventy percent of our referred children are male and 30 percent are female," she said. "With our volunteer mentors, the proportion is reversed: 70 percent are female and 30 percent are male. So you can see the need."
The second essential for fulfilling the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont is funding. Since July 2017, the organization has operated state-wide as its own independent affiliate of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
"For the first 40-plus years of our existence, when we were known as BBBS of Windham County," Diemond said, "we were sponsored by Youth Services in Brattleboro. They were also our fiscal agent.
"Then in 2017, we had the opportunity to take over a program in Chittenden County," she continued. "In order to do that, we had to operate state-wide and become an independent affiliate of BBBS of America. The process of separating took a year. We now have satellite programs in Chittenden County and the Northeast Kingdom, but our headquarters is here in Brattleboro."
As BBBS of Vermont was striving to establish itself as an independent entity with its own funding needs, BBBS of America, founded in 1904, was itself undergoing a transition.
"In October 2018, the national organization rebranded itself with a new vision statement, a new mission statement, and a new logo," Diemond said. "They updated standards of practice to insure not only that all programs across the country are more uniform, but also that they use the same visioning and marketing materials. Their research showed that while older generations recognized the organization, the younger generation had no idea what it was. They also wanted to market more effectively to men."
The advantages of being affiliated with the national organization, said Charlotte Raine, Windham County program coordinator, include "having a nationally developed, evidence-based model, having peers across the country that we can reach out to with questions, and having access to training. The model has high internal and external validity."
Donors to BBBS of Vermont can specify where they want their contributions allocated.
"Our organizational budget is broken down by region," Diemond said. "If someone donates to `statewide programming,' we allocate it wherever it is needed most. Or the donor can specify the donation is for their local program. All funds are tracked and allocated through our accounting system, so we know how much funding comes in for each regional location.
"Our online donation link also offers donors the choice of donating to the organization as a whole or to their local program," she continued. "Any money raised in Windham County through an annual appeal or through fundraising activities, such as Bowl for Kids' Sake, stays in Windham County unless the donor specifically states if can be used state-wide."
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont is a service-oriented nonprofit, Diemond said, that offers a free service.
"We count on sponsors and donors to sustain this service," she said. "We'd like to expand our Bigs in Blue program, a school-based program where officers go to local elementary schools and interact there with their Littles. Our police volunteers are screened, vetted, and trained exactly as our civilian mentors are. We've had Bigs in Blue from the Brattleboro Police Department at Academy School, Green Street School, and Oak Grove School."
Additional information about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont, including about volunteering and donating, is available on the website: www.bbbsvt.org, or call (802) 689-0092.
Nancy A. Olson, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.