When she met with her mentor Sally Hood, the emphasis was on becoming a well-rounded person.
“They’re good people, and they want to help you,” said Tabitha, 13.
Like dozens of other children and teens throughout Johnson County, Tabitha has seen the value of mentorship through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. The organization matches volunteers in the community with children who need another positive role model in their lives.
But the need for those mentors is outpacing the adults who have signed up for the program. About 30 children are on the waiting list for Big Brothers Big Sisters in the county alone, and more are signing up each week.
“Someone has already asked for these kids to be enrolled in the program, but we don’t yet have enough mentors to match them up and get them going,” said Darcey Palmer-Shultz, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana. “We know from research that all kids benefit from having multiple positive adult role models in their lives. We really believe that all kids have potential, and all kids need help to develop that.”
The children and teens who are waiting for a mentor come from difficult home situations.
In Johnson County, 69 percent of them live in a single-parent home. In 37 percent of the cases, at least one parent is incarcerated.
Nearly all — 97 percent — have families qualifying for free and reduced lunches.
“They have challenges. These are great kids with lots of potential, but they might not have everything working in their favor,” Palmer-Schultz said. “A mentor can help them develop a positive vision for the future.”
According to research by Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentoring helps children achieve greater success academically, overcome behavioral issues and develop the confidence and vision that will provide a better future, Palmer-Schultz said.
After 18 months in the program, children are 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school.
The transformation is even more evident to parents whose children are involved in the program.
Laura Knox signed her son, Ethan, up for Big Brothers Big Sisters nearly five years ago. His father wasn’t involved in his life, and Knox wanted him to have a good role model.
Before he started, Ethan was passive and reserved in school. He had trouble being social, and was bullied in school.
That changed slowly after mentor Joe King, a Franklin resident, started working with him.
“He went from being that type of kid constantly stuck in a book, to a completely different person,” said Knox, a southside Indianapolis resident. “Joe pushed him to try out for the football team. Ethan stopped being bullied in school. It just changed him completely.”
Mentors typically see their little brother or sister twice each month, though they can get together more or less if they want to.
Hood, a Franklin resident, joined Big Brothers Big Sisters nearly three years ago.
She had been a single mother, and signed her own children up for the program. It had been an asset to have another adult in their lives, she said.
“Especially for my son, to have a male figure in his life that I wasn’t able to provide, was beneficial,” she said. “I felt like I should kind of pay it forward and return the benefit that was given to my kids to another person.”
Hood would meet once a week with Tabitha. Sometimes they went to the park or the Indianapolis Zoo.
But often, the emphasis was on service.
“I just wanted her to do the right thing, to always strive to do her best in her life, to strive to be honest and up-front,” Hood said.
As a nurse, Hood has taken Tabitha into work to do service projects such as valentines or gift baskets for patients. They collected pet food for the Humane Society of Johnson County.
Together, they raised money for Relay for Life in Franklin, and competed in the cancer charity on the same team.
“We’ve both been impacted by cancer in our lives, and we’ve talked about the losses that come with cancer,” Hood said. “It’s been something we’ve connected with.”
When they first started, King met with Ethan Knox every week. But as the 16-year-old has grown older, they’ve adapted their schedules, getting together monthly instead.
The pair love to play sports, and have been to local football, basketball and baseball games. But King also tried to expose Ethan Knox to arts and culture that he might not ever discover on his own.
“He really encourages Ethan to be well-rounded,” Laura Knox said. “They’ve been to symphonies, to museums, to all kinds of things. I really like that, because I want my son to be well-rounded.”
Potential mentors need to be at least 19 years old, and the organization is in need of both men and women to volunteer.
People fill out an application, are interviewed and have a background check performed before they can become mentors. Training is provided on how to relate to their little brother or sister, and staff members from Big Brothers Big Sisters provides regular guidance throughout the program.
Mentors need to commit for at least one year. Research has shown that a yearlong relationship will get the best results for the child.
“Mentoring is a relationship-based program, so for that relationship to really take root and blossom in a productive way, length of time is important,” Palmer-Schultz said.
While most people are familiar with the traditional mentoring program, in which an individual is paired with a child, other options are also available, Palmer-Schultz said.
Couples can mentor a single child together, as can groups of close friends, sisters, brothers and other duos.
“It’s a way to expand and get more kids served, but also to give the mentor a little bit of peer support and get the courage to sign up,” Palmer-Schultz said.
In an effort to get more people like King and Hood, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana has embarked on a campaign to enlist more adult mentors.
Representatives have spoken to businesses within Johnson County, addressing their employees and passing out information about volunteering. Big Brothers Big Sisters is also working with Franklin College to find students who might be interested.
Neighborhood associations and churches have let the agency come in to speak as well.
Just as teens such as Tabitha and Ethan have had their lives changed by the program, Palmer-Schultz hopes that those children still on a waiting list can realize the same benefits.
“We already have kids in Johnson County who have asked for help,” Palmer-Schultz said. “We feel compelled to make sure they get that support and encouragement to make sure they’re able to do what they’re capable of.”
30 — Johnson County children on a waiting list for a mentor
15 — Number of kids from the Greenwood area waiting for a mentor
15 — Number of children from Edinburgh, Franklin and Whiteland waiting for a mentor
8 to 15 years old — Age range of those on the waiting list
69 percent — Number of kids on the waiting list living in a one-parent household
97 percent — Number of kids on the waiting list on free or reduced-price lunch
34 percent — number of kids on the waiting list impacted by incarceration.
— Information from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana
How to sign up to be a mentor
- Be 19 years old or older.
- Be able to meet with a child on average two to four times a month, for a minimum of four hours per month.
- Commit for at least a 12 months.
- Provide valid Indiana driver’s license or state ID and valid auto insurance. Exceptions for out-of-state driver’s licenses are made for students and military personnel.
- Have reliable transportation with no citations for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, reckless driving or license suspension for at least three years.
- Be free from alcohol and drug abuse or dependency for at least three years, and have not used illegal drugs or controlled substances in the past four years.
- No criminal record involving a violent crime and no criminal record within the past three years.
- Be willing to disclose medical and mental health history that would affect ability to mentor a child.
- Give consent for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana to complete background, sex offender and driving record checks during the time of interview.
- Submit three personal references by the time of interview.
- If accepted into the program, be willing to attend the required training session and will complete ongoing meetings with agency staff.
For more information about being a Big, please contact Jarod Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 472-3730.
How to sign up to be a Little brother or sister
Interested families can go to bebigforkids.org to sign up online, or contact Linda Perry at email@example.com or 472-3744.