By Kristin Fox
Since the 1980’s, the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Western North Carolina program has been serving kids across western North Carolina. Based out of Asheville, the agency serves all 18 westernmost counties. Recently the program has expanded specifically to serve the youth of Macon and Jackson Counties.
The Cashiers and Highlands chapter of the BBBS has roots as two individual programs, which were eventually merged as recently as 2020. The Highlands chapter was founded in 2002 by Ricky Siegel, a Highlands resident, and the Cashiers chapter was founded in 2012 by Eleanor Welling, a Cashiers/Greenville resident. North Jackson County has been in place since 2021.
Last summer, Danielle Hernandez, BBBS of WNC Senior Program Coordinator for Macon and Jackson Counties, began talks with the Macon County Board of Education and gained support to expand the program to serve Franklin students.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth-serving organization,” said Hernandez. “We ignite the power and promise in youth through one-to-one professionally supportive matches where we pair an adult mentor with a young person between 6 and 15 years old. Once a match is made, we will stay with the match and support them until the match ends or the child graduates from high school and oftentimes through their first semester of college if they choose to attend post-high school education.”
BBBS of WNC offers multiple programming options for adult volunteers to participate and also provides group events that support child development and interest exploration each year.
With everything in place to expand services to more youth in Macon and Jackson Counties, BBBS of WNC is actively seeking numerous volunteers across Macon and Jackson Counties.
“I can speak firsthand for Franklin and Cashiers/Highlands when I say we have multiple children who are waiting for a Big, and we, unfortunately, do not have the volunteers to be able to serve them,” said Hernandez. “It has been a growing challenge for so many non-profits over the last few years.”
A Big Brother or Big Sister is a volunteer who develops and nurtures a positive, supportive mentoring relationship with a child who is enrolled in one of the group’s programs. A Big is an older, encouraging friend who helps the child realize their potential.
According to Hernandez, there are several opportunities and avenues for becoming a volunteer within the organization.
“One of the neatest opportunities is for young people to become a High School Big,” said Hernandez. “Volunteers have to be 16 years old to be a High School Big and would work with a younger student in their area on site at the elementary student’s school during the school day once a week. A similar program is available for adult volunteers as well if they prefer to have a more structured schedule.”
“These school-based opportunities allow Bigs to meet with a student for one hour a week at the school site,” she added. “This time is spent scaffolding learning in the classroom and delving into student interests and strengths to foster learning, building self-confidence and more.”
The program also offers a community-based program where an adult mentor, 21 years of age or older, engages with a Little in the community to explore interests and provide opportunities the child may not otherwise have or have not had the chance to delve into for one reason or another. The program is very flexible in scheduling, and we ask for matches within this program to meet twice a month for two to four hours each time.
To become a volunteer, interested individuals need to fill out an enrollment form on the BBBS of WNC website, www.bbbswnc.org. Interested volunteers need to be sure to note which county/program they are interested in. After the agency receives the form, they will contact potential volunteers for the next steps including background checks, volunteer interviews, reference checks, and training.
“While it sounds like a daunting process, keep in mind we serve children, and the child’s safety is first and foremost and that is why our enrollment process is as thorough as possible,” said Hernandez.
BBBS of WNC also needs community advocates, volunteers for events, supporters and donors. It is through the community’s love and generosity that BBBS is able to effectively serve those who need BBBS the most.
Other opportunities to help the organization include fundraising. Beginning in January, BBBS will be rolling out their yearly fundraiser Bowl for Kid’s Sake. The theme for this year’s event revolves around the importance of literacy. The group will be working closely with the literacy organizations in the communities including libraries, literacy councils, and more.
Macon, Jackson, and Swain counties will be teaming up for a fun time at the Galaxy Lanes of Sylva on March 25. For more information about the fundraiser, visit the group’s website www.bbbswnc.org or call Hernandez at (828) 399-9133.
In the community, the main focus of the BBBS of WNC program is to provide one-to-one mentorships between adults and children. However, the organization also has a strong commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.
“I happen to be the Hispanic Outreach Leader and the Equity Team Leader for our region,” said Hernandez. “Over the last year we have offered opportunities locally that foster building bridges and provide equal access opportunities with partnering organizations like the International Friendship Center.
“June of 2022 was the inaugural Dia del Nino event in Cashiers/Highlands and we had an astounding 250+ attendees,” she added. “This was an opportunity to provide culturally rich experiences, and we were proud to lead the endeavor with so many amazing organizations supporting and collaborating.”
“BBBS is an important organization for the community,” said Hernandez. “As an adult who looks back and reflects on the reality of growing up in a single-parent home living in poverty, having to uproot and move from place to place and losing a father at a young age, I can tell you the benefit of having a mentor in a child’s life is the difference between struggling and striving.”
“As Rita Pierson once said, ‘…every child needs a champion…’ and I couldn’t agree more,” she added. “This is an opportunity to provide that champion, to be that champion in a child’s life. I truly believe it takes a village and the more encouragement and positivity that surrounds our children, the more beneficial it is to a child’s development and growth.”
“We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to spread the word and to be so warmly welcomed in the Franklin area,” said Hernandez. “I’m honored to serve as your local program coordinator and look forward to meeting future Bigs and Littles and families.”