Summer’s here and that means kids in Gulfport, South Pasadena, St. Pete Beach and other Pinellas County communities are out of school for the next couple of months. Many of them live in single-parent homes and are in great need of positive mentoring and attention from adult role models, so what better time to begin a rewarding experience as a Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) volunteer?
That’s the message from Jack Sheppard, managing director of marketing and partnership development with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, which recently became the fifth-largest BBBS agency out of more than 300 across the United States.
Becoming a “Big,” says Sheppard, “is a great way to give back to the community, and it’s particularly meaningful because you are dealing with children and a lot of kids in this area are facing adversity.”
He added, “It’s not as much of a commitment as people assume, and you are changing kids’ lives for the better, forever.”
Sheppard spent the bulk of his career working as a journalist for the Tampa Bay Times, whose recent investigative series, “Failure Factories,” spotlighted the myriad challenges facing Pinellas County schools and the families and children they serve. He said BBBS of Tampa Bay keeps detailed statistics about the positive effects that Bigs are having in Pinellas and the six other counties that it serves.
“Last year, we served nearly 3,000 children, and 98 percent of our Littles were promoted to the next grade level and 98 percent stayed out of the juvenile justice program,” said Sheppard, who retired from the Tampa Bay Times in 2014 but has been volunteering as a Big since 2003. “By volunteering with BBBS, you’re impacting education and impacting negative behavior. Those are big numbers and big successes. There’s a lot of legislation out there that’s not having nearly that kind of impact.”
BBBS has several options available to adults who’d like to become matched with a Little Brother or Little Sister. There’s the school-based program in which a Big meets with his or her Little for one hour per week at the Little’s school. There’s a “sports buddies” program in which Bigs are matched with Littles who have similar interests in sports and athletic activities. And there’s the community-based program, in which a Big picks up a Little from his or her home and they attend events and do activities together that can be cultural, educational, or just for fun.
“Those are one-on-one relationships,” Sheppard said. “We do have a Big Couple option where you share the commitment with your spouse, and you don’t have to take time away from your own relationship to mentor a child. It’s also a great role model opportunity because most of the time, the child is not coming from that type of stable relationship. It sends a great message.”
Sheppard said BBBS of Tampa Bay currently has “hundreds of children” on its waiting list who are eagerly awaiting a Big Brother or Big Sister.
“We particularly need male volunteers,” he added. “We have a lot of kids who are living with a single mom or living with a grandma that need a positive male role model in their lives. So, there’s always a greater need for men, but we have a lot of young girls, too, who need Bigs. We can never keep up with the demand.”
If you’re pressed for time or just aren’t quite ready to become a Big, financial donations are always appreciated, Sheppard said. “It costs about $1,500 a year to support a match and so in addition to volunteers, we are constantly looking for funding. You can go to our website and make a donation or sign up to support one of our events.”
BBBS of Tampa achieves incredible returns on that $1,500 match-support investment, though. “The average cost of housing a child in the juvenile detention system for a year is around $88,000,” Sheppard said. “So you weigh that against the $1,500 cost of supporting a Big/Little match, and it’s a no-brainer.”
So, what are you waiting for? BBBS of Tampa Bay offers weekly orientation sessions throughout its seven-county coverage area for adults who’d like more information about becoming a Big. To find the next orientation session nearest you, visit bbbstampabay.org and click on the “Volunteer” tab.
“We ask anyone who is even mildly interested in becoming a Big to come to one of our orientations where we run through the different programs, talk about the commitments, explain the process, do some mentor training, and talk about child safety,” Sheppard explained. “Then, once you totally understand the process and are interested in moving forward, we’ll take your application and schedule your personal interview. That’s an integral part of the process because we want to get to know you very well so we can match you with the perfect kid.
“There’s no shortage of children in this area who need help,” Sheppard concluded. “It’s really just a matter of getting volunteers signed up and getting them going.”