Big Brothers Big Sisters offers encouragement

10/6/2012

CORRECTION: Jessica Harman and Emily Harman's names were misspelled in an earlier online version of this story.

CORRECTION: Jessica Harman and Emily Harman's names were misspelled in an earlier online version of this story.

Editor's note:This is the 10th in a series of stories featuring the 21 agencies that will receive funding from the Finney County United Way in 2013.

BY BRETT RIGGS

riggs@gctelegram.com

Before Devin Harman became involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties, he was running into trouble at school.

Before his younger sister, Cassidy, was matched with "big sister" Katie Haines, she struggled with shyness.

Whether they are having academic or behavioral problems at school, running into trouble with the law, or simply struggling with social and interpersonal communication skills, there are other kids out there like Devin, 14, and Cassidy, 11, and many facing even bigger problems.

Tammy Davis, executive director of BBBS, has no doubt matters would be worse were it not for the work of her agency.

"A lot of these kids would just get discouraged and drop out or get involved in things that aren't so good — illegal activity," Davis said, when asked to imagine what life would be like for BBBS kids if the agency wasn't around.

Jessica Harman knows exactly what life around her house would be like without BBBS.

"Devin would probably still be getting in trouble in school, and Cassidy would probably still be really shy and not as open," said Harman, Devin and Cassidy's mother, who also has a third child, 9-year-old Emily, involved in BBBS. "I think it means a lot to them to have a 'big.'"

Through the BBBS community-based mentoring program, to have a "big" is to have an adult mentor spending quality one-on-one time with a child.

To help ensure quality matches are being made, BBBS case managers screen children and adult mentors in the program. Once matches are made and the children and mentors begin spending time together, case managers track the progress of those relationships to make sure the children's needs are being met.

That crucial component of the BBBS program might not be possible without the help of the Finney County United Way. BBBS is set to receive $35,000 from United Way in 2013, the same amount as this year. While the allocation accounts for only about 12 percent of BBBS' overall budget, it helps pay for volunteer training, children and volunteer screening, and tracking the children/mentor relationships.

"It's really important because if we didn't have it, we wouldn't be able to serve as many kids as we do," Davis said about the United Way funding.

Many children in the program come from single-parent homes, or even no-parent homes. Some come as referrals, be it for emotional problems, trouble at school or criminal behavior, Davis said. The community- and school-based, one-on-one mentoring programs currently are reaching about 800 children, and involve more than 500 adult volunteers. The agency's summer mentoring program served 126 children this past summer. BBBS' newest program, after-school programs that feature student tutoring, mentoring and extracurricular activities at Horace J. Good Middle School and Charles O. Stones Intermediate Center, can accommodate up to 50 kids at each site.

For Cassidy, the program and her time with Haines has helped her feel more at ease with others.

"Cassidy is really shy," Harman said. "Since she's been with Katie, she's really come out of her shell."

Haines, a second-grade teacher at Abe Hubert Elementary School, said she and Cassidy usually spend an hour or two a week together, with their activities ranging from eating out to playing board games to going to church to baking to attending occasional community and BBBS events. Every so often, Haines said, Cassidy will come up and help her in her classroom at Abe Hubert.

Providing structure to a child's life is one of the greatest benefits of BBBS, said Haines, adding that children in the program learn to make spending time with their "bigs" a priority.

"I think for the 'little,' there would just be a lot more on-their-own time, running the streets, less structure," Haines said, when asked about the void that would be left without BBBS' services. "Students wouldn't be learning that time management, how to make choices. With the program, they do learn those things."

Davis has seen first-hand how BBBS helps at-risk youth, through the agency's Mentoring Siblings of Juvenile Offenders program. The program involves tracking BBBS children who are siblings of juvenile offenders. Three years ago, of the 97 children tracked, only one got in trouble with the law after becoming involved with BBBS. In year two, none of the 136 youth involved in the program got into legal trouble, and in the third year, only two out of 115 got in trouble.

It's not just a matter of keeping kids out of trouble and on the right track, Davis said, but also one of fiscal responsibility. She points out that it only costs about $350 a year to put a child through the BBBS program, but it costs $180 a day to keep a child in the juvenile detention center.

Still, the impact BBBS makes on a child's life isn't measured just in its effectiveness in helping children with their present-day problems and issues, but also on its ability to help children grow into responsible, successful adults, Davis said.

"I think the program works because — it sounds simple — but paying attention to kids is really what works and helps them succeed," Davis said. "It's our goal to make kids successful forever."

The local United Way's annual campaign goal is $550,000 for 2013, the same as it has been for the last few years.

The 21 partner agencies for the 2013 campaign include: Miles of Smiles; Russell Child Development Center; Finney County RSVP; Kansas Children's Service League; Catholic Social Service; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Program; Smart Start; Playground Program; Family Crisis Services; Spirit of the Plains, CASA; The Salvation Army; Meals on Wheels; Habitat for Humanity; Garden City Family YMCA; Garden City Chapter of the Red Cross; Santa Fe Trail Council of the Boy Scouts of America; Community Day Care Center; United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties; and Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland.

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