JV AmeriCorps member Ellen Quinn (Billings, MT ’15-16) serves as the School Program Specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County (BBBSYC) in Billings, MT. Below, Ellen shares her experience managing a mentoring program that provides consistent, positive influence to at-risk students in grades K-8th.
Much of my previous experience working with at-risk populations involved adults and older adults. Many of them expressed behaviors and tendencies that align with histories ruptured by childhood homelessness, abuse, poverty, incarcerated parents, and/or substance abuse. Often I caught myself thinking, “If someone had reached out long before now to offer a positive presence and a listening ear, things may have turned out quite differently.”
Now, as the School Program Specialist at BBBSYC, I have the opportunity to act as the catalyst that provides 110 at-risk students in grades K-8 (called “Littles”) with a high school mentor (called a “Big”) to provide that presence and listening ear. This program spans eight different schools throughout Billings.
The high school Bigs serve multiple purposes for their Littles. First and foremost, they are consistent, positive role models who provide 1-to-1 mentoring to each of their two Littles. They spend four days a week for one class period with each Little, during which time they coach their Little through homework, eat and talk with them at lunch, play games with them at recess, and complete class work in the hallway or library. Many Littles need help catching up on their classwork, concentrating in class, learning to talk through disagreements, improving reading and math skills, and confronting bullies.
In all cases, the Bigs serve as coaches and role models. These Bigs are also trusted adult figures with whom Littles can choose to share things that trouble them, such as bullies at school or instability at home. Through the ears of the Bigs, BBBSYC can communicate with school counselors to stitch together a better sense of how the Littles cope with uncertainty in their lives and what extra support we can offer them.
On Wednesdays, students come to the BBBSYC office where I lead lessons focused on topics relevant to mentoring at-risk youth. Topics include bullying and cyber bullying, childhood aggression, self-esteem, learning disabilities, and communication. Many of the high school students enrolled in this elective class are already well equipped with previous experiences working with or mentoring children. Or they at least have a desire to offer their time getting to know another student and helping them with school work. By working together with the high school Bigs, elementary Littles, and their counselors, I am learning a great deal about ways to help all students involved improve their communication and mentoring skills so that they learn to advocate for themselves and others.
The struggles that many Littles face outside of the classroom are numerous. A large majority of the Littles live in homes with varying degrees of instability, ranging from minor to overwhelming. Some students live with grandparents or other relatives because their own parents are incarcerated; others have been placed in foster care due to unsafe home environments and involvement with Child Protective Services; and others have adults coming in and out of their lives that they would rather not form meaningful bonds with due to a lack of trust that the bonds will last. Montana is consistently one of the highest states in the nation for suicide rates, which directly affects some of our Littles’ families. Meth is by far the drug of choice that tears families apart and, in some cases, leads to fatal overdoses.
Because I am a Lunch Buddy and visit my own Little once a week, I see firsthand how some of these issues affect young students’ classroom performances. Keeping all of these factors in mind, it is understandable how these children come to be in need of a consistent, positive influence such as a high school Big. Mentoring is something anyone can take part in, whether informally through organic friendships or formally through a structured program like those provided by BBBSYC. Though I may not have much previous experience working within school systems with the perspective of a social service agency representative, I can already see in my first five months here how imperative this program is to the students involved and also the greater community at large.