In the middle of the COVID-19 social distancing, I sat down with Executive Big Brothers Big Sisters Executive Director, Kristie Miller-Arlt via Zoom to learn more about the organization. I invite you to join our conversation and where you have questions I didn’t ask, share those with us on Siouxland Magazine Facebook page or reach out to Kristie directly for the answer.
Siouxland Magazine (SM) – Thanks for talking with me today. Our May issue theme is “Failure”. That’s shocking to some people. Why would we want to focus on a negative aspect?
Kristie Miller-Arlt (KMA) – You have the perfect subject because I’ve failed at so many things.
SM – That is so funny. I remember one time when I was interviewing for a job I was asked to describe a time when I failed and I was stumped by that question. I know things haven’t always turned out the way I expected, but I never saw that as failure, just opportunity to learn. I think if any of us say we have never failed at anything in life, then we haven’t tried.
KMA – Or we are in complete denial.
SM – So true! And looking at that and saying “It’s ok! Failure is part of living and growing.” This is how we at Siouxland Magazine choose to look at failure – it is a necessary element of growth and building resilience. What does this mean? What does it look like in your context?
KMA – You know what is resonating with me. Most of the parents who put their kids in our program are single mothers. We have, obviously, some dads and some married couples who put their kids in, but primarily these are women doing it alone. And I have heard, countless times, when our match specialists meet with the mom. They come in and cry and sometimes physically look like they’ve been through the ringer. I think it takes tremendous courage for a mom to ask for help. There is no shame in that. The staff here all have tremendous respect for the mom who says “I need help. My child is struggling and I need help. Can you help?” It’s obvious they love their child and are good mothers. I want to do a better job of commending these parents who are asking for help.
SM – It is hard to ask for help. It can feel like failure, like we don’t have it all together, but asking for help is a sign of strength. So that’s from the parent side which is really important. How does failure come into play from the “Bigs” side – or does it? When you recruit BIgs, do you ever run into people who say, “weelll, I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I don’t know what I have to offer. I don’t know that I’m good enough to be a Big”.
KMA –The number one priority of our program is safety – keeping the children safe. We do monthly safety checks. We do extensive background checks on our Bigs. I can tell you they all approach the Littles with empathy and understanding, trying to meet the kids where they are.
Our Bigs aren’t tasked with being a parent, teacher or disciplinarian. Their role is truly to be there – to be a Big Brother or Big Sister. It has tremendous impact for the Littles. It makes a difference to a kid when it comes from a buddy or friend. They know when someone doesn’t ‘have to’ be there but is choosing to care. The Littles know the Big has CHOSEN them.
Across the country all Big Brothers Big Sisters have the same problem. We have a trouble recruiting male mentors. We all have a list of boys sitting on our list waiting to be matched. On the other side, we have females coming through our doors and have a waiting list of Big Sisters waiting to be matched with Little Sisters. Right now we have 21 boys waiting – age 6-13 – and a few have been waiting over 2 years.
So when I do recruitment, I always ask what is your perception is with time. How much time do you think it takes to be a mentor in our program? And I get everything from every weekend to 10 hours per month. It’s a big misperception about how much time it takes to be a Big in our program. The national organization has spent a lot of time researching how it takes to have an impact. And it’s 4 hours a month.
SM – Wow!
KMA – I know! Most people are then like, ‘Oh, I can do that’. So it is a big responsibility to educate the community about what it takes. You don’t have to spend every weekend, you don’t have to be mom or dad. Do you have to spend money? The answer is no. Just spend 4 hours a month, listening and just being there for a child. Just being there when you say you are going to be there. It really does change a child’s life.
SM – How does the process work?
KMA – I encourage everyone thinking about it to go through our one-hour orientation. It gives us a sense of what you are looking for in a Little and you can learn all about the program. Once you go through the orientation and think you can spend the 4 hours per month. You do the background check, an interview and home assessment. There is a process to becoming a Big but that’s because we want to keep Littles safe. We work hard to make a good match with interests, etc.
SM – So it’s not just a random, lottery-type assignment.
KMA – No, that’s also why we sometimes have Littles who sit on a waiting list a little longer. The Bigs who come in may not be a good match.
SM – Do you ever have kids who never get a match?
KMA – The kids on our waiting list, we do continue to check in with them. To see if they want to remain on the list. The worst thing for us is when someone comes in when they are a little older and they age out before we get a match. That’s what really hurts for us. It is rare. We have 21 sitting on our list right now, but usually we can match in a month to six weeks.
SM – That’s quicker than I thought.
KMA – Then after they are matched, we have Mentor Specialists follow-up. Once matched you aren’t just all on your own. Every month the Specialist calls the parent, the Big, the Little and gets feedback from each of them to find out how things are going, what progress is being made. The Specialists can provide great advice for Bigs. The Specialists are there to make sure the relationship is healthy and safe.
SM – What is something most people don’t know about BBBS?
KMA – We have talked a lot about one-on-one mentoring. You can do it one-on-one or as a couple. Big families are becoming very popular – the whole family gets involved in mentoring!
Most people don’t know we also have site-based programs. We work with Beyond the Bell where the Bigs don’t go off-site. They meet their Little at the school for one hour a week after school. Our Plymouth county program is growing in the schools with Lunch Buddies program.
And we just launched Junior Bigs. We are piloting with West High School and Liberty Elementary. We trained and screened interested high schoolers and matched with elementary students. The Match Support Specialist meets with the Big, the Little and talks to the parent. As life gets back to normal we hope to be expanding that program. We would eventually like to be in every elementary school in Sioux City.
If you are reading this article and want to enroll your child. Go to our website and we can start the process. We serve students in Union, Plymouth, Dakota & Woodbury County – ages 6-13. www.Bigbrothersbigsisters.com
SM – What can the average Siouxlander do to advance the work of BBBS?
KMA – Volunteer. Learn about us. ANY body can be a mentor. Sometimes people say, what am I going to teach a kid? Well, you don’t have to teach them anything. You can show them what a friend looks like. You can teach them what a healthy relationship looks like.
We need volunteers. We need men. We have wonderful men in this community that I know would be great Bigs. We focus so much on helping a child and helping a community, but mentoring is a two-way street. There are benefits to the mentor too. Think about being a mentor, click here to learn more.