They say it takes a village, but Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska has a long history of demonstrating how just one caring adult can make a difference in a child’s life.
The seeds for what would become an international program were set in 1904 when an Ohio businessman noticed a boy digging through garbage for a meal. Irving Westheimer believed he could help disadvantaged children by offering his time, direction and heart.
For 40 years, Alaska’s program has been doing the same, matching kids ages 6-16, with adult mentors to help them along their way.
“Mentoring has such an impact on youth,” said Jill Richardson, who heads Alaska’s chapter. “All of us need a sense of belonging in our lives.”
There’s been this one nagging problem.
“About two years ago, we realized we had a gap with our Alaska Native youth,” she said. “At the time we had 125 Alaska Native youth and 20 Alaska Native adult mentors. We did a ton of work trying to figure out what was going on.”
Since then, surveys, focus groups, marketing campaigns and other recruitment strategies have boosted that ratio.
“We have been growing our Alaska Native mentors little by little, one relationship at a time.”
All the program asks of Bigs is to meet with their Littles two to four” times a month.
“The commitment is only for one year,” Richardson said. Officially, that is. “Sometimes they stay together for a lifetime.”
“I think there’s something to say about having someone you can relate to,” said Brady Dale, who’s in his fifth year with his now 14-year-old Little Brother.
Krystal Kompkoff and her 8-year-old Little Sister have gone on ice cream dates, watched movies together and even went for pedicures. They also do beading, traditional and contemporary, which Kompkoff hopes will someday contribute to the girl’s cultural pride.
“I feel kids, as they get older, are able to be proud of who they are when they see other people who are like them who are successful.”
Jim Stevens, who mentored a 12-year-old boy, agrees.
“Mentors can demonstrate pathways to success, dispel a lot of negative stereotypes and reduce fears,” he said.
“Being a Big Brother goes a long way to building positive self-esteem, not only in myself, but hopefully in my Little Brother. You never know how appreciated you are as a person until you spend time with a Little Brother.”