October 28, 2019
Big Brothers Big Sisters St. Joseph
DEFINITION: Happy and full of energy.
Helping a child see his or her potential is all about the “big” things – which are often wrapped up in all the little things. It’s about conversations in the car on the way to grab some ice cream. It’s about casual questions, like “what’s going well at school right now?” And it’s about letting a child know there are people out there who think of them, and want to encourage them, across their daily lives.
In St. Joseph, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been connecting local youth. called “Littles,” to their “Bigs,” the adults who mentor them, for nearly 12 years. (But there’s also a fascinating connection to St. Joseph that spans over a century. Read on to find out).
The Big Brothers Big Sisters formula is simple. Families interested in pairing their child or teen with a mentor complete the application process. Adults, couples and families interested in mentoring can attend an informational session, then complete the application process, guided by the professional staff at the organization. A Match is then created, based around similar interests and goals of both the Littles and the Bigs.
And then the really fun part begins.
Fun, and a Little More Fun
Having fun is the whole goal, says Tiffany Miller, MCET Case Manager, Big Brothers Big Sisters St. Joseph (known locally as BBBS St. Joe). “Literally, the goal is to have fun! A Match is a friendship. It’s not a parenting role. It sounds too simple, but that is the secret to the ‘magic.’ The real impact comes from strong relationships, and if you know kids, relationships are built around fun and friendship!”
Bigs and Littles can set their own schedule to spend a couple of hours a week together, doing what they enjoy. It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated. Most of the quality time spent together for many busy individuals and families is based around normal everyday things, like hanging out at the Big’s home, or eating meals together. Some families enjoy sharing community sports and school events together with their Little, especially when the family is on the go. The Match relationship is flexible, and it can be adapted to meet what works in the Big’s life. Following the first year, the commitment can focus on one or two monthly connections.
“A positive adult relationship can literally change the entire course of a child’s life. Bigs inspire. They ignite possibilities and defend the potential of the kids in our community,” says Miller.
The minimum commitment for a Big/Little match is one year, but Miller explains many Matches tend to stay friends much longer. “The average Match is about three years, and our longest match is at nine years and counting. We love that some of our matches turn into lifelong friendships, but we know that even one year makes a tremendous impact on a child.”
Today, the opportunities for Matches are abundant and growing, with a waiting list of about 40 children who are asking for a role model. “We just matched a boy that waited three years to be matched! He was so grateful, and his match is already inspiring everyone at our office … they are really enjoying getting to know each other. There are so many more kids that are waiting for that opportunity,” says Miller. “It’s so important that the youth of St. Joseph have role models so they can become the leaders of tomorrow.”
Research demonstrates that the program is doing just that. With a Big, a child is 84 percent more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem. They are also significantly less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. When engaged in a Big/Little match, Littles are 62 percent more aware of educational and career opportunities – and they are 52 percent less likely to skip school.
Connections and Comradery
The St. Joseph BBBS office is a satellite office of BBBS of Greater Kansas City, and manages its own recruitment, events and goals. Bigs and Littles are invited to participate in several group activities throughout the year, including the annual Bowl for Kids’ Sake – the year’s biggest fundraiser – complete with food, prizes and lots of merriment. The “Big Swing” Golf Tournament continues to grow, helping increase awareness and support for the organization.
The Blue Bins around town also help with monthly support for the organization – literally providing money for Match support and activities from things people aren’t using. Community members can drop off used clothing, shoes, toys and even small household items to a Blue Bin. Volunteers transport the items as part of a partnership with Savers Thrift Stores, who pays Big Brothers by the pound for items received. Bins can also be set up at area workplaces for collecting used items.
The success of BBBS St. Joe is truly a village effort. Local business partners and sponsors work to come alongside Big Brothers Big Sisters, helping meet needs and provide opportunities. Through active email and social media connections, Bigs and Littles can learn of special happenings that are fun ideas for getting together, like fishing, baseball games and area events. Recruitment nights are held around Taco Tuesday several times throughout the year, providing a low-key setting for learning more about how the program works.
Miller says that for anyone interested in mentoring, but worried about having their own family and not having enough time, Big “Families” is a great option. “All of our events allow our mentors to include their own family when attending. We try to make it something that everyone enjoys, so your own kids benefit, too!”
A Surprising St. Joseph Beginning
Like many uncommon organizations in the region, BBBS St. Joe began when someone saw a need and decided to do something about it. In 2008, the need for mentoring became a new priority for the United Way Leadership St. Joseph class. One of the members of the leadership class had been asked by a local middle school student if she could come and see him receive his honor roll award at school. The group soon learned that the student was living in an abandoned house with his family, and that no one was going to attend to see him earn the honor. From there, the Leadership St. Joseph class helped start a chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, affiliated with the nearby Kansas City organization.
Interestingly, the 2008 creation of a chapter in St. Joseph has a connective thread with the city’s history and beloved architectural landmarks. The story begins with the Whiskey Mansion, now the Whiskey Mansion Inn. The mansion was built in 1885 by Ferdinand and Sarah Westheimer and is a significant addition to the Harris-Kemper Historic District, a National Register neighborhood. Born in Rimbach, Germany, Ferdinand immigrated to the United States in 1849 – working first in New York, peddling dry goods to farms via horse. In 1859 he set off for St. Joseph, the furthermost town to the West that was serviced by the rail lines. He opened a dry goods store on Frederick Blvd., where City Hall stands today. After his marriage in 1861, he and his wife began distributing whiskey to mining towns out West, soon producing several whiskey brands under the Ferdinand Westheimer label. The Westheimers became part of St. Joseph’s wealthy entrepreneur community, and then hired prominent architect E.J. Eckle to build the Whiskey Mansion in 1884.
And … wait for it … They raised eight sons at the Whiskey Mansion, one of whom went on to found Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. The rest is life-changing, role-modeling, friend-making history.
Miller explains that the community fabric of St. Joseph helps make the program successful and impactful. “Our team, our volunteers and our partners in St. Joseph work hard together and truly care about the all of the people involved in the program. Together, we are all one ‘Big’ family. This is such a great time to be involved in changing the future of our youth.”
Author’s Note: Our family has enjoyed having a Little for the past two years and counting. At first we didn’t think we would have time, with three busy boys and so many activities. I’m so glad we took the steps. We don’t always do anything all that special, but we always end up sharing some laughs and good conversations while we have fun. Anyone can do this, because the program is so flexible and the staff is so supportive! It’s been great for our kids to experience this and to see how just being there for a child can be so important. With BBBS, it fits in to what your family is already doing.
Mount Mora Cemetery, home to 14,000 to 18,000 deceased individuals, is curiously and remarkably alive.
In addition to its paved walking paths, the Parkway features miles of rugged biking and hiking trails and serves as a red carpet to some of St. Joseph’s most interesting places.
What started 160 years ago has returned in a new way. Ask hundreds of customers and visitors, and they’ll say it’s right on time.
A visit to the St. Joseph museums is … Quirky. Surprising. Curious. Impressive. Enlightening. And totally worth a day, or an afternoon, or a full weekend with the family.
Sarah DeGarmo’s story is one of life echoing art. And vice versa.