Mentoring program provide strong relationships for youth

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Isaiah from Montgomery, goes bowling with his "Big Brother" Topher Gleason from Joliet at at Brunswick Zone in Naperville. Gleason has been Isaiah's big brother for six years. They spend one night a week together. | Mary Compton ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Growing up, Topher Gleason of Joliet struggled to find good role models.

“There were a lot of ‘untaught’ men who were trying to teach me,” Gleason said.

It wasn’t until Gleason was an adult that he sought and found men to teach him “how to be a man.” He wanted to take that knowledge and share it with somebody other than just his son. He made a pledge: to pay it forward by becoming a mentor himself. Gleason has been a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Kane and Kendall counties in Aurora for the past six years.

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“The main thing a boy wants in his life is to have another man show him how to be the man he knows he can be,” he said.

How it works

One of the most universally recognized mentoring programs is Big Brothers Big Sisters. Their mission is to “provide children facing diversity with a strong, enduring, professionally supported one-to-one relationship that changes their lives for the better forever,” said Eric Dhom, school-based program coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Kane and Kendall Counties.

Through the BBBS program, volunteers make a commitment to mentor a young person for a minimum of 12 months.

“We look for someone who is dedicated and willing to try and make a difference,” Dhom said. Commitment on the part of the grown-up is essential to becoming a successful BBBS mentor.

“Be consistent … show up, be a positive influence, have an open mind and a positive attitude, be a good listener … those are the core skill sets that we’re looking for,” said Jeremy Foster, vice president of corporation and foundation relations with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago.

Prospective BBBS mentors fill out an application. The organization then conducts a layered background check. If all systems are a “go,” the organization matches “littles” in need of “bigs,” and with whom they share similar interests.

Because BBBS receives about 4,500 to 5,000 inquiries a year from people wanting to volunteer, they have to be stringent in their efforts to provide good mentors for the children.

As such, mentors receive training about best practices for interacting with children. This can range from walking a mentor through how to talk to a child that may have developmental issues to simple conversation starters. They also learn about proper and improper touching, listening skills and different activities that “bigs” and “littles” can do together.

BBBS has a full-time coordinator that helps mentors navigate the waters of issues that may come up as they begin the process of a successful mentoring relationship.

Meeting times are varied to accommodate the volunteers and promote full participation. Sometimes children visit their mentors at different sites — at work, at a university, or maybe at a club such as a Boys and Girls Club of America. Other times, the mentor spends time doing fun activities one-on-one with the mentee.

Foster says background checks don’t stop after volunteers have been screened and matched — not by a long shot. In fact, after a mentor has been approved and matched with “a little,” BBBS continues to perform background checks at least twice a month.

“Because you’re still matched with our kid through the life of the program ... we want to know what type of person you are,” he said.

The rewards

Isaiah, 13, of Montgomery, who was matched up with Big Brother Gleason, confirmed that mentoring has made a big difference in his life.

“Topher talks to me a lot and he’ll answer whatever questions I have … I feel like his little brother,” Isaiah said.

Isaiah said the relationship with Gleason has helped him to be able to talk to people more easily and get to know them — something he didn’t do before he met Gleason.

But it’s not always the mentee who is learning.

“He’s good in so many different ways … the greatest thing about him [Isaiah] is that he’s teaching me how to be a man myself,” Gleason said.