When Sam Thomas and Samyr were introduced as a Big Friends Little Friends (BFLF) match, they created a personal handshake. That same day, they went to a Lawrence park, where two young men (both taller and older than 10-year-old Samyr) were playing basketball. “Want to shoot hoops with them?” Sam asked.
“Are you crazy?” Samyr said. “No way!”
“Hey,” Sam replied. “Don’t beat yourself before you’ve even tried. With your Big Friend, anything is possible.”
Once Samyr started converting Sam’s passes into baskets, the Big Friend Little Friend combo was able to win the two-on-two. More than a year later, their friendship remains strong. Initially matched because of their mutual interest in basketball and music, Sam and Samyr have forged a bond based on Red Sox games, movies, meals and hip-hop music.
Big Friends Little Friends (formerly Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Lawrence) became a program at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley years ago. Leah Feroce, mentoring programs supervisor at FSMV, says, “Anybody can be a mentor. We’re looking for people who want to be a friend and make a difference in a child’s life through their guidance and encouragement.”
The initial one-year commitment is to spend 1 ½ to 2 hours a week building a relationship with the Little Friend. BFLF provides two evenings of training, and sends email suggestions of low-cost or free activities. Most matches quickly discover their favorite shared activities. Big Friends must be 18 or older, while Little Friends range in age from 7 to 14.
“Initially, I wanted to be a Big Friend to give back to the community, to act on my Christian faith, and to do some good for someone else,” says Sam, a sales director. “I was apprehensive about the time commitment, but it’s not a task, it’s fun. I’m accountable to Samyr. He knows when I’m coming, and counts on me.”
FSMV currently oversees about 110 BFLF matches, but there are more than 60 children waiting for Big Friends. Each has been referred by a school or an agency, or had a parent call to say, “My child would benefit from a mentor.” Since there are fewer male mentors, boys currently have to wait three to four years before they get a match. Cross-gender matches are possible. One Merrimack Valley woman with grown sons chose to mentor a boy, and as she became involved with his family, ended up including his younger sister as a Little Friend.
“Mentoring is a positive youth development strategy that works,” Feroce says. “Kids who have a mentor are more likely to do well in school, have a more positive outlook on the future, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”
It costs FSMV about $1,000 to make and support a match, given staff time for screening, mentor training, interviews and regular follow-ups with matches. Donations are always helpful, whether they’re in the form of time, money or event tickets that Bigs and Littles can use.
Attorney Kathleen Potter and her Little, , now , have been together for five years. “Before we were matched, I wondered if we’d have anything in common. What we would talk about.” Kathleen says. “My biggest surprise has been how enriching this relationship has been for me, as well as Ericka. I love seeing the world through her eyes.”
Ericka has four brothers, a sister and extended family in the area, but “Kathleen is the one who has time to listen,” Ericka says.
Kathleen describes Ericka as “an articulate, literary, artistic child who is wise beyond her years and clearly loved by her parents. Ericka showers me and my family with affection, and her presence in our lives has been a gift beyond anything I could have imagined.”
Big Friends Little Friends Family Services
Lawrence, Mass. / (978) 327-6600 / FSMV.org