You’ve Got a Friend in Me

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (3/24/13)—A close friend inspires laughter; they teach us the value of sharing, trust, tolerance, and loyalty; they raise our sense of self-worth and confidence; and they can help us through some of the toughest times life can dish out. In turn, a true friend becomes someone that we both respect and admire. Simply put, having someone in our lives that we can enjoy spending time with—be it a family member, a close friend, or even an acquaintance—is an essential part of reaching our full potential as human beings.

Founded over 100 years ago with this concept in mind, Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of America has become the nation’s “premiere” mentoring organization and has helped to pair thousands of caring mentors with children over the years. While this century-old tradition remains wholly intact today with the incorporation of community-based mentoring programs, many BBBS affiliates, including our own local BBBS, which serves both Hopkins and Muhlenberg Counties, have been able to widen their volunteer base with the addition of afterschool programs.

As the official BBBS website explains of the community, site-based, and afterschool mentoring programs, “The primary goal is to give children the opportunity to improve their learning skills and self-esteem through individualized attention.”

Whereas local BBBS Director Sandra Aiken says that the organization currently has several successful community-based matches in place, the afterschool programs have been just as powerful, drawing out approximately 50 participants in total this year. Hopkins County elementary schools participating in the program include Hanson, Grapevine, West Broadway, Dawson Springs, and Earlington.

“The afterschool BBBS mentoring program, which was started about 12 or 13 years ago, works with high school ‘buddies’ and elementary students. Juniors and seniors that are eligible to volunteer with the program must have a 3.5 GPA, or higher, and need to be recommended by their school to work with elementary students. With the help of the schools, we recruit students for the program at the end of the year. One of our contacts at the school refers us to the students and then we mail them applications. Those that are interested send the applications back to us and we interview and train them during the summer so that they’re ready to go once the school year starts,” says Aiken. “For the entirety of the year, the ‘buddies’ visit their ‘little’ in an afterschool setting. Their parents come pick them up, they ride a late bus home, or they are part of the YMCA’s afterschool programs and go directly there from the school. It works out really well for the high school students to come to the schools because of that.”

Regarding the general impact of the program, Aiken explains that, “So far, the program has been very successful. The elementary students love hanging out with the high school kids. The high school students love it, too, so it’s a win-win situation. With the high school ‘buddies,’ I think it’s really cool that both the elementary and high school student are receiving benefits from participating. The high school ‘buddy’ sees the benefits of giving back to the community and helping someone out; they get that ‘feel good’ feeling that comes from volunteering. The elementary students really look up to their ‘buddies,’ because they’re not like a teacher or just another adult; they’re a high school student, which is kind of like their peer in a way, and they know all the latest ‘cool’ stuff.”

In correlation with referrals from area schools’ guidance counselors and teachers, the program works to make the best match between the high school “buddies” and the elementary students before moving forward.

“We try to find a student who really needs a ‘buddy.’ They might need social interaction, they might be having a hard time with school, they might be part of a single-parent home, or they may have an incarcerated family member—there are a variety of reasons an elementary student might be referred,” says Aiken. “It’s rare for a parent to call and ask to be a part of the program, but it does happen from time-to-time.”

So what is the afterschool program really like?

To find out firsthand, members of the the Sugg Street Post recently had the privilege of visiting with two of Hanson Elementary School’s BBBS participants: Tre, 9, and Gabriella Niestrath, 18 (see photos).

Having met during the latter half of October 2012, Tre and Gabriella have spent many an afternoon together over the last five months—and as their words and friendly interaction evidenced, both are enjoying the time they share through the afterschool program.

A third-grade student at Hanson and a third-baseman for the Hanson Hunters baseball team, Tre is a native of Hopkins County that enjoys playing outside when the weather’s nice and has a fondness for video games.

“I like playing on the playground during recess,” says Tre. “I like video games, too. I like Mario on the [Nintendo] Wii, Halo for X-Box, and all kinds of games on my [Nintendo] 3DS.”

When asked what one of his favorite things to do with Gabriella is, Tre said that he liked to play tag the best.

And Tre has some heroic aspirations in-mind for the future, which, as one might conclude, may be due in part to his direct interaction with a volunteer like Gabriella.

As he explains, “I want to be a police officer when I grow up. I want to be police officer because I want to help people out.”

Gabriella, a senior at Madisonville North Hopkins High School, is a native of Kalamazoo, MI, a current resident of Madisonville, KY, and enjoys ice skating and reading. She’s also involved in diving and cross country.

Along lines somewhat similar to Tre’s, Gabriella also plans on lending a helping, and possibly life-saving, hand to others in the future via a professional position in the medical field.

When asked how she became involved with BBBS, Gabriella replied that, “Last year, I heard some friends talking about it. They said they really enjoyed it, so I decided that I would try it out. I actually had time to do it too, so I went and signed up.”

Regarding her and Tre’s normal afternoon routine, she explains that, “For the first 30 minutes, we try to do something productive like homework, then we go out and play. If the weather’s bad, we play in the gym. Tre usually can’t wait for that first 30 minutes to be up either. [laughs] He does really, really well, though.”

And through the duo’s time together, Gabriella has not only made a new friend and a positive impression on Tre, but she has also been inspired to support BBBS well into the future.

“It’s been a very good experience so far. I’ve really loved it. It’s a great way to give back and it’s given me an opportunity to be involved with other people’s lives that I wouldn’t have otherwise met,” says Gabriella. “I hope to show my support for BBBS for a long time if I can. It’s very rewarding and, as far as time goes, it’s not very restraining. It’s an hour every week; that’s nothing in the scheme of things.”

Continuing the cycle of volunteerism and one-on-one mentoring is nothing new to BBBS either.

As Aiken explains, “We’ve had so many kids go full circle. I’ve been with BBBS for 14 years, so I’ve witnessed it firsthand. We’ve matched kids at six-years-old and then they’ll come back when they’re a junior or senior, saying, ‘I want to do what so-and-so did for me for someone else,’ and that’s a really great thing to see happen. We also want the high school ‘buddies’ to come back and be community-based members, too, which also happens quite often. They can go off to college, come back, and become a member of the community program so that they can pick a child up. In general, being a part of BBBS can easily become a deeper part of your life, and many people who are involved end up wanting to ‘spread the love,’ so to speak.”

Yet, it’s not just the active “bigs,” “buddies,” and “littles” that are affected in a positive way.

“Personally, BBBS has done wonders for my life,” says Aiken, reflecting on her decade-plus involvement with the charitable organization. “The reward of seeing someone who remembers me from the program, and to have them excited about seeing me, is truly priceless. It’s not perfect—we can’t save everybody—but if we can be a positive influence for some, to plant a seed that helps the kids later in life, that’s a real accomplishment. It really does grow, too. We teach kids skills that they will use in a job setting 10 or 20 years later.”

To learn more about the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization of Hopkins and Muhlenberg Counties, such as how to get involved with their popular annual fundraiser, “Bowl for Kids’ Sake,” which will take place on April 27th, please visit their official website by clicking here. A video PSA regarding BBBS is also attached below this article. 

You can also learn more about BBBS via a previous Sugg Street Post article by clicking here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp

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