Talk about a power lunch.
Once a week for five years, Sheila Immel took a lunch break from the Kansas University Alumni Association, where she served as senior vice president for membership before retiring to pursue a career in art, and spent time at an area elementary school with a little girl who had just experienced a great personal loss. They read, horsed around on the playground, talked, worked on homework and played games. But mostly they knit their lives together.
As a “Big” in the Bigs in Schools program through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County, Immel was charged with nothing more than being a friend to a little girl who desperately needed one. The experience changed them both.
The Bigs in Schools mentoring program pairs adults with elementary and middle school students who have been identified by their school counselors as “at risk,” said Cathy Brashler, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County.
The students may be struggling academically or socially or, like Immel’s Little, be facing tough challenges at home.
“The Bigs aren’t there to ‘fix’ a child,” says Brashler. “They are there mainly to spend time with this child, giving them individual attention. Some Littles want to talk, some want to do arts and crafts. They can play sports at recess.”
It’s not the activity that matters so much to the Littles; it’s the opportunity to form a close, ongoing relationship with a caring adult that is transformative.
More than 80 percent of Kansas children involved with Bigs in Schools experienced an increase in their self-esteem, according to a three-year study conducted by the Austin Peters Group. Seventy-one percent improved their academic performance, 50 percent had fewer unexcused absences from school, and 67 percent reported that their attitude toward school improved.
A study by Public/Private Ventures found that students involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters were less likely than their peers to begin using illegal drugs and alcohol, to skip school or to rely on violence to solve their problems.
“Being a Big opened up my eyes to how many kids out there don’t have somebody in their lives,” Immel said. “All you have to do is go to a (Big Brothers Big Sisters) breakfast and hear from kids who have had a Big, and how it has changed their outlook and turned them around in life.”
Right now, the Bigs in Schools program has 80 active matches in Lawrence’s public elementary and middle schools. Brashler’s goal is to increase the number of matches to 110 this school year.
“It’s become the cool thing for the kids to have a Big come — it’s the highlight of their week,” said Beth Hodge, case manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County. “The teachers comment that the kids’ overall attitude and behavior is better on the days the Bigs come because the kids are in a good mood, looking forward to seeing their Bigs.”
Immel’s Little graduated out of the program last spring, but Immel had such a positive experience as a Big that she signed up to be matched with a new Little this fall.
“I got as much out of it as she did,” Immel said. “Seeing her face light up when I walked in — it was win-win.”
For more information about the Bigs in Schools program, contact Brashler at 843-7359 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or attend one of the organization’s volunteer information meetings, held every Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. and every Wednesday at noon at 1525 W. Sixth Street, Suite A.