About 400 school children are currently on a waiting list to get help developing life skills from the local mentorship chapter of the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters. The organization is currently trying to recruit 160 more mentors by April 2023, with a focus on attracting men and people of color.
“We’re not asking anybody to save these kids. They don’t need saving,” said Merridith Crowe, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lowcountry. The North Charleston nonprofit organization launched in 2019 matches adult volunteers — or “bigs” — with kids (“littles”) aged 7 to 18 in the tri-county area.
“They have greatness within them,” Crowe told City Paper. “It’s a question of how do you help them see it? Can you help them imagine what they could do with their innate potential and be somebody that they can turn to?”
After 18 years of working in the nonprofit industry, Crowe said her understanding of childhood adversity and adult mentorship makes the Big Brothers Big Sisters mission one that she can fully get behind. The organization works with families who want caring adult figures in a child’s life to help him or her tap into their potential, whether it’s because the household lacks the two-parent dynamic or kids just need another attentive figure in their lives.
About 10,000 of the 31,000 underserved kids in the tri-county region could benefit from Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorship programs, Crowe said, which means aggressive growth is part of the organization’s aim so it can meet that demand.
The current goal, named “The Big Imperative,” is to create and support 300 one-to-one mentoring relationships by June 2023 and grow by 100 in 2024 and another 100 in 2025.
The demand for big brothers and people of color is high, Crowe said, as 70% of children on the waiting lists are male and 90% identify as Black or Brown. The commitment for adult “bigs” consists of spending quality time with “littles” twice a month for about two hours. Many mentors begin by committing to their “littles” for about one year, but most end up serving for an average of three years, Crowe said.
“Having some additional emotional support results in stronger academic performance and stronger feelings of likability, which then results in [kids] engaging in pro social behavior,” Crowe said, “so they’re less likely to engage in risky behavior like substance abuse and misuse or antisocial behavior at school.”
Crowe said the main roadblock to committing to be a big brother or big sister is overthinking what the role entails.
“Adults think that they need to be perfect to be a great mentor,” she said. “And we always ask for the perfectly imperfect mentors, the people who are learners, who are not afraid of making mistakes, who are open and humble and curious and who can make space for their ‘little’ to show up.”
North Charleston attorney Joshua Salley has been a big brother for about two years.
“People thinking that they’ve got to do all these things that require a lot of effort — that’s why I wasn’t involved in programs like this,” Salley told City Paper. “But after taking part in it for two years now, I’ve realized that a little bit really goes a long way in being able to mentor someone and have a relationship that positively influences them. We’ve all grown up, and we know that sometimes there are things going on in our lives that we don’t want to talk to our parents about — you can be that safe person that they can rely on.”
One of the last times Salley hung out with his “little,” they went to a free car show and spent some time talking about how school was going, whether the student was making new friends and what movies he was looking forward to seeing. Salley ended up taking his “little” to his first day of school because his mom had to work and he was nervous and didn’t want to take the bus.
“A lot of people have a look at themselves and maybe think that they’re not the person that’s going to be a role model for someone else,” Salley said. “It’s not necessarily about having some type of elevated status that you can help them get to, it’s just about being there for them and being another person that they can trust that looks like them and has lived life or experienced some of the things that they might be experiencing.
“It’s enriching in both ways — I’ve learned a lot from my little brother, more so than I think he’s learning from me sometimes.”
To become a mentor or get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lowcountry, visit bbbslowcountry.org. The organization’s largest fundraising event of the year, the BIG Lowcountry Boil 2022, is Dec. 3 at Holy City Brewing, North Charleston.
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