A little goes a long way
As Big Brothers, Big Sisters celebrates National Mentoring Month, need still exists

A little goes a long way

The Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Southwest Colorado has matched about 100 mentors, or Bigs, with their Littles, but almost 20 children are still on a waiting list for a mentor./Photo Illustration

Tracy Chamberlin - 01/17/2019

It’s the little things that make the biggest impact. Like teaching someone how to sew, figuring out which restaurant in town has the best bacon cheeseburgers, or taking a few minutes to talk about Peyton Manning’s play-book and how a ski lift works.

These are just small moments. But when someone takes that time to listen, to share experiences and to explain the world, those are the moments that can change a child’s life.
“It’s just a bunch of little things that add up to something big,” Caleb Speaf, who’s been a mentor with the Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Southwest Colorado for the past seven years, said. 

Big Brothers, Big Sisters isn’t as high profile as some of Durango’s other nonprofits – after all, it wouldn’t stand out to see two friends laughing, talking and sharing a meal at a local restaurant – but it’s been quietly making an impact for the past 35 years.

The national organization has been around for more than a century and was created to help at-risk youth. Children who come from one-parent households, low-income families, live in foster homes or have had some type of trauma in their lives.

The local chapter opened its doors in 1984 and serves families across Archuleta and La Plata counties, including in Ignacio, Bayfield, Pagosa Springs and Durango. Currently, the group has 100 matches between what they call Bigs and Littles. Bigs are the mentors, the Big Brothers or Big Sisters, and the Littles are the children enrolled in the programs.

Although, one hundred may sound like a lot of matches, not everyone who needs a mentor has one. Nineteen children are still on a waiting list because there are not enough Bigs in the program, and 14 of those waiting are boys.

It turns out finding men to be mentors is not just a local challenge, it’s a national one.

“I think a lot of people think they have to be something they’re not,” Gretchen Potts, who’s been a mentor for the past two and half years, said. “You don’t have to be a superhero, you just have to be a guy.”

The role of being a mentor seems to come more naturally to females, according to Bundy Gomar, program development manager for the local chapter, whereas there’s a bit of a stigma for males. They may not even realize the impact they can have on a child’s life, she said, just by spending a few hours a month with them.

“I see the impact that being a Big Brother can have for these kids,” she added.

Studies show children involved with Big Brothers, Big Sisters have more self-confidence, do better in school and are more hopeful about the future. They are also more likely to graduate from high school, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and maintain healthy relationships.

The most recent data from the Big Brothers, Big Sisters national organization, based on survey results taken in 2016, revealed 78 percent of children in the program said they feel better about their educational opportunities than they did before entering the program.

Eighty-two percent felt better about their relationships with adults, including their parents, and 84 percent were less likely to use drugs, alcohol or engage in other risky behaviors.

Seventy-six percent of the parents surveyed thought their children had more self-confidence, 82 percent said they were doing better in school, and 78 percent said they were more hopeful about their futures.

And all these statistics started with something small, like a conversation or a cheeseburger.

“I think a lot of people think they need to save somebody, but it’s not about that,” Speaf explained.

Going big

There are two key programs with Big Brothers, Big Sisters: a community-based one and a school-based one.

The community-based program is what people typically think of when they hear about Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Mentors, or Bigs, spend about one hour per week or two hours per month with their Little. This program is flexible and lets the Bigs, Littles and their parents decide how they want to spend their time.

With the school-based program, Bigs spend one hour per week with their Littles after school. This program is offered when schools are in session and, currently, it’s only available at Park, Riverview, Needham and Florida Mesa elementary schools.

This program is the way many mentors start out because they only have to commit to one hour a week during the school year.

Potts started as a mentor with the school-based program almost three years ago and eventually moved over to the community-based one where she met her Little.

The two have gone skiing at Purgatory Resort, 

swimming at the Durango Rec Center and hiked area trails. They’ve also been able to taste every bacon cheese-burger (her Little’s favorite food) in town and figure out which ones they like the best.

“It’s been wonderful to get to know her and her family,” Potts said. “It’s just worth it to make time for the next generation.”

Other Bigs, like Speaf, found their Littles while working in the school-based program and transitioned with them to the community-based one.

Speaf said he was working construction before joining Big Brothers, Big Sisters about seven years ago. The job wasn’t fulfilling, so he tried volunteering with other non-profits in the area. But nothing seemed to fit. Then he found Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

Being a mentor not only changed the life of a child, it changed Speaf’s as well.

He said being a part of the program inspired him to go back to college and get his bachelor’s degree. Today, in addition to being a Big, he’s working as a counselor for Mancos Elementary School and earning his masters with Adams State University.

“It’s an awesome way to give back, and it’s a lot simpler than people realize,” he added.

According to mentors in the program, what they hear the most from people who are hesitant to be a Big is they don’t have time to make a commitment. But, all the mentors agree, it doesn’t take much time.

“It’s making a little bit of room to have a Little in their lives,” Gomar said.

Mentors who’ve been in the program for just a couple years or more than a decade all said the application process for becoming a mentor is thorough, but not burdensome. The organization offers plenty of support when applying, being matched to a Little, and long after the match is made.

And, it’s not just the organization that supports the Bigs and Littles. The community plays an important role, too.

“We’re lucky to have such a wonderful community,” Gomar said.

Mentors give their time and local businesses give them coupons. Purgatory Resort donates lift tickets for Bigs and their Littles. The Rec Center provides passes, so Bigs and Littles can enjoy activities together like swimming or scaling the climbing wall. Some local restaurants even offer free or discounted meals so Bigs and Littles can try all the bacon cheeseburgers in town.

Those donations are essential to the program. It not only gives mentors ideas for things to do with their Littles, it also means they don’t have to worry about finding the money to do so.

Instead, the focus stays on the mentors, the children and the time they spend together – working on the little things that make such a big difference.

A little goes a long way

Mentors McKenzie Purdue (from left), Linda Bencic, Gail Grossman, Chris Goold and Marjorie Brinton share stories at an event to celebrate Big Brothers, Big Sisters National Mentoring Month at The Palace on Tuesday. In addi- tion to its commu- nity-based and school-based men- toring programs Big Brothers, Big Sisters also has a High School Bigs program where high school stu- dents can become mentors./ Photo by Stephen Eginoire