Big Brothers Big Sisters and North Thurston Public Schools – Serving Our Littlest Heroes

Published: ThurstonTalk, June 14, 2016

ari-and-wendy

11-year-old Ari and her mentor Wendy have a special bond, helping Ari through the difficulty of multiple moves and deployments.

Eleven year-old Ari looks forward to every Thursday. That’s the day she gets to meet with her Big (mentor), Wendy. The two meet over Ari’s lunch hour and do simple activities such as playing cards, board games, or talking about their shared interest of birds. They were matched as part of the Military Student Mentoring program, a partnership of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington and North Thurston Public Schools.

Military Student Mentoring is a pilot program funded by a 1.3 million dollar grant from the US Department of Education. Researchers from multiple universities will study the effects that school based mentoring has on the behavior and academic performance of children of service members. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington and North Thurston Public Schools were the only organizations selected in the country to participate in the program.

Children of service members often endure multiple moves, deployments, and separations from their service member parent. Ari herself has lived at three different duty stations and experienced five deployments, some as long as 16 months. The increased emotional stress can negatively impact academic performance and behavior at school. The goal of the Military Student Mentoring program is to develop a model for school districts to utilize in order to support children of service members, and prevent such negative impacts.

Not all children in the program have displayed alarmingly negative behavior, sometimes it can be much more subtle. When Ari’s father left on his third deployment it was only weeks before her birthday. A girl that would usually start brainstorming ideas for her birthday party, sometimes over a year in advance, suddenly didn’t want to have a party at all. That gave her mother, Danielle, cause for concern.

Ari got connected to Big Brothers Big Sisters when Danielle, the Seven Oaks Elementary School volunteer coordinator, was approached by another school staff member about recruiting volunteers for the program. Danielle was at first resistant to the idea of enrolling Ari because she, and her two younger siblings, are so well adjusted. Danielle and her husband didn’t want to take the opportunity away from a child that might need it more, especially since Ari was already meeting with the school’s military family counselor once a week.

ari-and-family

Ari and her family celebrate a promotion with their entire family before her dad is deployed.

Danielle ultimately decided to go forward with enrolling Ari in the program and is amazed that Big Brothers Big Sisters was able to find the perfect match for her daughter. “Ari doesn’t make friends easily, but it was easy with Wendy. She adores her. Ari is really into chickens and Wendy has a macaw so they connected on that. Wendy will bring Ari feathers from her parrot, and Ari will get so excited,” says Danielle.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington recruits the volunteer mentors and matches them with the children based on shared interests and personalities. Safety is paramount. Every mentor must go through an application process, national background check, and interview. The matches are supported by Big Brothers Big Sisters staff, always available to offer ideas and advice. The nonprofit believes that a quality, one-to-one mentoring relationship can change a child’s life for the better forever.

Issues pertaining to military connected children are something that are near and dear to the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington, John Hicks. A retired service member himself, having served 26 years with multiple deployments, and a father of two boys. “Throughout my career, I saw firsthand the stress placed on kids from demands of a parent’s military service.  Our hope is there will be more programs like this.  Having another adult to talk to and spend time with can be invaluable for these kids, as well as helping to alleviate some of the pressure for the military spouse during frequent deployments and moves.  When we were approached to partner with North Thurston Public Schools for the program, we jumped at the chance. It’s really a great opportunity to serve children that make such a sacrifice for our country.”

Danielle can certainly relate to the pressures that other military spouses feel when their service member deploys. “They [Wendy and Ari] do some of the things I’ve lost time for, like playing cards. There is school, activities, and sports during the week and then the weekends are spent catching up on housework. You just lose the time to sit down and play a simple card game with them.”

Danielle also appreciates the fact that Ari now has someone else to share her concerns with. “Ari sees me stressed and doesn’t want to add to it, so sometimes she won’t bring up some things, like being sad at recess. Having a mentor means she can go to that person with the little things.”

Research supports the efficacy of one-to-one mentoring relationships for children. According to a nationwide study, children with mentors are 99 percent more likely to avoid risky behaviors such as skipping school or trying drugs and alcohol, and 64 percent felt more socially accepted by their peers.

If you would like to volunteer to be a mentor, please contact Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington at (360) 943-0409. The commitment is only one day a week during the student’s lunch hour, for the duration of the school year. Just one hour, one day a week can make a big difference to our littlest heroes.The 2015-2016 school year was the inaugural year for the Military Student Mentoring program. It started with ten students in three elementary schools in the North Thurston Public Schools district. Big Brothers Big Sisters and North Thurston plan to grow the program for the 2016-2017 school year, expanding the program into one additional North Thurston elementary school and increasing the number of students matched from ten to 50. The program will be available at Evergreen Forest, Meadows, Seven Oaks, and Woodland Elementary Schools.