A little time, a big difference: Mentoring program helps families fill the summer months with fun

Joan Goodchild

Maribel Hernandez knew she wanted to raise her 15-year-old twin sons, Elias and Jamar Bell, to experience a world outside their own neighborhood. A single mom raising a family in the Boston area, Hernandez also knew getting the boys involved in programs where they would have access to strong mentors and role models would help them get a different perspective in life.

When the boys were 7, she enrolled them in the one-to-one youth mentoring program offered by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Massachusetts (BBBSEM).

“I’m a strong believer that you need good adults in your kids’ lives to raise them to be global humans,” said Hernandez. “I want them to be citizens of the world. In order to do that, they need to communicate effectively, and get to know other cultures and positive male figures. “

Now, nearly eight years later, both boys are “Little Brothers” (also known as Littles) who regularly meet up and spend time with the same two Big Brother mentors (known as Bigs) they were paired with at the start of their participation in the program. They both glowingly talk about the fun they have as part of the meetups. Whether it is heading out on a fun day of fishing, or simply hanging out and talking, both feel it has made a big difference in their lives to have their Bigs as touch points to guide them and offer advice.

“We speak about different situations,” said Elias. “We have adult conversations about what’s going on in the world. Some of the talks we have when we go out to eat. They are always funny. He likes to joke around a lot.”

“I definitely get different perspectives,” said Jamar. “For example, in school, I didn’t agree with my principal about something and he helped me see the principal’s side.”

Hernandez said the program has been a wonderful constant for the boys.

“We have been lucky ones because of their commitment,” she said of the Bigs.

Stopping summer slide: addressing inequities with fun and activities

BBBSEM says the program also addresses a need for activities and fun during the upcoming summer months. As some families struggle with housing, food insecurity, unemployment and underemployment, having another caring adult in their children’s corner can be the difference between a child fulfilling his or her potential and struggling in or dropping out of school and experiencing depression or anxiety, say program officials

The agency’s Chief Program Officer Terry McCarron says every summer, BBBSEM aims to stop summer learning loss for those who may not have the means to pay for camps and structured activities – especially since the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on so many incomes.

“Families that are well-resourced, for example, can give their children additional camp, travel and outdoor learning and engagement experiences than families with less access to those opportunities,” said McCarron. “For more than a year now we have seen how the pandemic has exacerbated those inequities, fueling virtual dropout rates and pediatric mental health issues. A Big is an episodic camp that meets you where you are at. Mentors create carefree and adventurous outlets for young people who want to experience the world around them and learn about themselves in the process. Instead of a week sleeping away at camp, a Big will come on weekends and shuttle a Little into a new formative learning experience.”

Last summer, the agency had 2,800 active matches, with 107 new matches made between June and August. During the summer months, the agency helped Bigs and Littles remain in each other’s lives. That meant pivoting the usual in-person outings to virtual ones. BBBSEM continued to provide activities, resources and online engagement strategies so that the connections could continue, said McCarron.

“Our matches responded brilliantly, continuing to meet virtually and learning together by having cooking competitions, doing art projects, exploring their respective and collective identities and celebrating life’s little victories.”

The relationship rewards go both ways

Mentors say their involvement is enriching as well. Brian Pinch, a Charlestown resident who has been mentoring Jamar Bell for nearly a decade, initially got involved simply to give back. A colleague at work was a part of the program and he persuaded Pinch to attend an information session.

“It hit me that so many kids are on a waiting list waiting for mentors to enter the program,” said Pinch.

Soon after, Pinch signed up to help and was paired. Now that he and Bell have known each other for several years, the relationship has matured from simply mentor and mentee to friendship.

“As he got older, I’d say ‘Let’s just meet up and hang out.’ It’s certainly been a rocky year with COVID. For the most part in the last year and has been mostly virtually. But we have an easy friendship and often just text each other to catch up.”

Monik Mehta, a Weston resident, was originally first aware of the program as a financial supporter. But he wanted to do more.

“Giving a check is fine, but giving your time is priceless,” said Mehta. “I specifically wanted to help children. “

Mehta is Elias Bell’s mentor and says their relationship has evolved over years. Before COVID, they often spent time going to a mall or going to sporting events, but their time together has been mostly virtual over the last year. This summer the hope is to resume more in-person meet ups again and head to Mehta’s gym, where Elias enjoys playing basketball and lifting weights. 

Hernandez says every moment for her boys is a gift.

“The mentors have embraced the boys as family members. Being able to have those man-to- man conversations I can’t have with them is so helpful. They have been able to show boys there is more than what they experience in their house.”

BBBSEM is enrolling and matching Littles and Bigs virtually. For more information, to register a child, or to become a volunteer, visit: www.emassbigs.org.