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Cindy Mesko: Big Brothers and Big Sisters read

Cindy Mesko is a senior vice president at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, in charge of agency development and mentoring programs.

Since 1904, the nonprofit mentoring program has paired children with role models in order “to start a one-to-one relationship built on trust and friendship that can blossom into a future of unlimited potential.” Now there’s an in-school component that often involves reading.

Big Brothers started when a young New York City court clerk decided too many boys were coming through his courtroom. He decided that caring adults could help many of them stay out of trouble, and set out to find volunteers. In 1977, Big Brothers joined forces with a New York group called Catholic Big Sisters to become Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Twelve years ago, it added a school-based mentoring program —to which KR will soon be donating books.

Today, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America serves nearly 250,000 children across 50 states, while Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters International, serves over 27,000 children in more than 1,000 communities across Canada. The organizations are separate entities, but both coordinate meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers (“Bigs”) and children (“Littles”) ages 6 through 18.

National research has shown that Little Brothers and Sisters are:

  • more confident in their schoolwork performance
  • able to get along better with their families
  • 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs
  • 27% less likely to begin using alcohol
  • 52% less likely to skip school

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America:

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada:

Big Brothers Big Sisters International:

Q: What year did Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s school-based mentoring program begin?

A: 1999. It has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of children since then.

Q: What prompted it and how does it work?

A: School-based mentoring began as a way to reach more children in need while providing volunteer mentors additional options for involvement. We have hundreds of tremendous partnerships with schools, sharing a common goal for every child to achieve educational success, avoid risky behaviors and have higher aspirations. Big Brothers Big Sisters provides essential support to students often referred by their teachers, by assigning each child a one-to-one mentor who meets with them at the school each week either during the school day or during after-school programming. The hours vary, based on common interests or the student’s particular needs. Some days our Bigs and Littles may talk about school, work on homework or read, then play games, shoot hoops or listen to music. We know that the children’s lives are changed for the better as a result of our professionally supported, strong one-to-one relationships with a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Q: How many Big/Little pairs are involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s school-based mentoring program at any given time?

A: More than 100,000 students in the U.S. had an in-school “Big” in 2010, in communities all across the country. Approximately 45 percent of our children served in any given year are supported through our school-based programs. (Big Brothers Big Sisters International (, which has 12 affiliates outside the United States, reports that in 2009, six other countries had school-based mentoring programs: Bulgaria, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Russia.)

Q: What results are unique to this program?

A: In 2007, a study on our mentoring program found that a year of involvement in Big Brothers Big Sisters leads to greater academic engagement and achievement for youth in the program. The children showed positive impacts compared with the control group even after only 5.3 months, but the effects did not persist without continued participation in the program. The study underscored the importance of long-lasting mentoring relationships in school-based programs, just like community-based programs. In 2008 we began an enhanced school-based mentoring project, addressing these findings to ensure that our school-based relationships achieve even stronger, longer lasting benefits. Our average length of match in school-based programs is now over 12 months.

Q:  What are the biggest differences between Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s school and community-based programs?

A: There are more similarities than differences. School-based volunteers visit their Littles for an hour each week during the school year, while community-based volunteers generally spend a few hours two to three times a month with their Littles. The school-based program offers volunteers who may have more restricted weekend schedules a chance to be part of something great—an opportunity to give back to a child in need. Volunteers in both programs are asked to make the same initial time commitment of one calendar year, to ensure time for a strong friendship to develop. Volunteers in the school-based programs may be recruited and involved through their workplace, university class or other group, while most community-based volunteers come to us individually. All Big Brother and Big Sister volunteers receive ongoing support and guidance from our professional staff, who help suggest activities, provide feedback from the Littles’ teachers and give reassurance along the way. Often our school-based volunteers decide they want to see their Little outside of the school, in which case we work together with the child’s parent to provide the transition to the community-based program.

Q: What advice do you offer Bigs to maximize the success of the school program, especially anything specific to reading?

A: We know, based on research, that the most important thing Bigs must first do is build an engaging relationship with their Little. There is no difference in this approach, whether the match meets in the community or school-based program. Our advice to Bigs is “show up when you say you’ll be there, take a genuine interest in your Little, have fun and share your values around the importance of education.” By focusing on the needs and feelings of the child, Bigs will be on their way to establishing successful match relationships where Littles discover their true potential, gain exposure to new opportunities and possibilities, and understand the decisions they must make in order to follow a path of success.

Q: Is leisure reading typically a part of the school program?

A: While not part of a standard curriculum, the majority of our school-based Bigs help their Littles with schoolwork, including reading together or reading to each other (not to mention that most school-based matches meet in the school library where they are literally surrounded by books and magazines!). We recommend blending in personal conversations throughout the meeting time, lest the Little feel there is no relationship other than tutoring. Likewise, trips to libraries and bookstores are a common activity in the community-based program.

Q: In general, are male volunteers more challenging to find than female?

A: Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies across the United States are working to recruit more men to become Big Brothers, specifically African-American and Hispanic men, as boys of color disproportionately represent those waiting to be matched. Men need to know they don’t need any special skills or training to be a Big Brother; they can change a child’s life by simply being there!

Interviewed by Pam Withers

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