Building families, one sibling at a time

When Erin Gardner is preparing for an exam, there are a few things she can count on: being stressed, losing sleep and a special message from her “little brother.”

“He really listens, and if he knows that I’m worrying over a test, sometimes he’ll call and leave me a good luck rap on my answering machine,” said Gardner, a USF senior. “Friends my age care about what I’m going through, but not many would go that out of their way.”

Erin and her “little brother” are part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay. The nationwide program, which was founded more than 100 years ago, has been in the Tampa Bay area for more than 30 years. The organization matches children with a volunteer mentor, to give hundreds of children role model figures in their lives.

“A lot of kids have a father in and out of their lives or a mother who isn’t around, so they look forward to knowing that someone will be there to see them once a week,” Gardner said.

Lorie Briggs, vice president of community relations at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, said that although the program does not focus on tutoring, studies have shown that the friendship improves grades.

“When a kid has a grown-up friend who takes interest in him and his schoolwork, performance and esteem improve,” she said.

Some of the children do have special needs, which the program compensates for by offering additional training and counseling to help the volunteer properly support his or her “sibling.” Project CARE pairs volunteers with children who are infected with HIV or whose lives are affected by it. Another special program is Project DOVE.

“(The) USF School of Social Work has been a collaborative partner of Project DOVE since its inception,” Briggs said. “Project DOVE is a special program pairing children who witnessed domestic violence with a Big Brother or Sister who receives training from our agency and our community partners, such as the School of Social Work.”

Volunteers are expected to spend an average of nine hours a month with their designated “Brother” or “Sister”. Some volunteers cannot devote that much time and choose to participate in the site-based program where they visit their “little” for an hour a week at a school or after-school center.

Briggs said all volunteers and kids are interviewed to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.

“We really want the child to benefit from the strengths the volunteer has to offer. And we want the volunteer to have an opportunity to tell us his or her preferences for a little brother or sister, such as age, ethnicity, or area of town,” Briggs said.

The program currently serves Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties, and has nearly 900 volunteers. Briggs said there are still 400 children on the “ready-to-be-matched” list, and some of them may remain on the list.

“The average girl waits less than six weeks for a Big Sister, but the average boy waits a minimum of two years for a Big Brother. We especially need male volunteers or women who would like to be paired with a boy,” Briggs said.

Gardner and Briggs both said college students make perfect candidates for the program.

“It doesn’t take a lot of time or money,” Gardner said. “It’s only once a week, and you do everyday things that most people take for granted: baking cookies, going to the movies, washing the car. It’s really just about spending time together and it’s nice to be accountable to someone.”

Briggs said she thinks college students are able to relate well to the kids.

“For many college students, the school-age years weren’t that long ago and they can easily remember how important it was for someone other than your parents to take notice of you, to give your ego a boost when you needed it or to lend an ear when there were problems,” she said. “Plus, it doesn’t cost a lot of money and it’s a great excuse to be a kid again.”