Beautiful Transformation- Seeing What Mentoring Can Do- A Caseworkers Perspective.

When I first met Matt and Keegan for the match introduction at Keegan’s school in January my impression of Keegan was that he was troubled boy with a defensive attitude. He seemed to snarl at authority and had some distain for me as well. He seemed a little intrigued by his mentor Matt, asking questions and finding a few things in common throughout the introduction. They both shared an interest in outdoor survival and the tools that would be handy to have in that situation. Keegan seemed to not be very confident in his responses and communication with Matt.

Fast forward three months… I completed match monitoring last week with Keegan and Matt. The match monitoring went as hoped with both big and little responding with positive feedback about the match and each other. Keegan told me about the activities that he and Matt do together and that he enjoys the time that he has. He also stated that Matt really listens to him and he knows this because of the exchange during conversations they have. However, the most notable point of the meeting was seeing Keegan’s demeanor. This young man who just a few weeks ago had seemed to lack confidence in himself and was defensive, now walked with distinct confidence and was almost buoyant. His head was up and he smiled at me as he approached me. He made eye contact with me and spoke with assurance. He was respectful and kind. It was as if it was a different boy all together. This beautiful transformation in a child, in just a few short weeks.

Brooklyn & Allie

Allie came into the ISM program two years ago. Her parents and her teacher applied to this program for her as she really struggled, in more areas than one. Allie’s confidence was incredibly low. She had very few friends. At times, she was selectively mute and barely said more than two words to anyone. The hope for her in this program was that she would have a friend that would believe in her and be kind to her.

This past year she was matched with a new mentor named Brooklyn. The first few weeks of the match were slow to warm up. Allie was always quiet, yet managed to keep a smile on her face. Brooklyn would ask her lots of questions and would do her best to remember details of what she had shared in previous weeks. Over the next few months, things really began to change.

Allie went from speaking minimally to having full on conversations with her mentor. Not only that, she became so comfortable that she would joke around with her mentor and even tease her at times! Brooklyn found this to be the turning point of their match and was encouraged by this incredible progress. When Allie talks about her mentor, over and over she explained that some of her favourite parts of the relationship are that her mentor listens to her and follows through on each visit.

Upon the closure of their match this school year, the school liaison validated all of the positive changes that Brooklyn had been seeing. She had said that since Allie has had Brooklyn, she has been more positive, joined more clubs and is more confident in talking to other people. She described this change in Allie as a transformation and begged for Brooklyn to continue next year as this had been such an influential factor in Allie’s development.

Many times, mentors wonder at the beginning of an ISM match how one hour per week can really make a significant difference in the life of their mentee. For Brooklyn, the change she saw in Allie as well as the feedback she received from the school, this was proof that came loud and clear.

Rachel and Adam

You can never predict how you’re going to meet your life partner, and that was certainly the case with Adam and Rachel.

Rachel, fresh out of graduating Public Relations at Niagara College, landed the first job of her career with Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Catharines, Thorold & District (BBBS) as their Communications Officer in 2012.

It was during the same time that Adam was in the middle of his own career, but also working with BBBS on running an annual third-party event called The Zelda Marathon. The event is held every December at the agency’s headquarters, and revolves around a group of gamers playing Zelda 24/7 in the BBBS basement for nearly a week straight.

“I remember the first time I saw Rachel was during The Zelda Marathon 4 in 2012. We were on day 5 or 6, and I had been going without sleep for about 24 hours. I also had my face painted orange and black as part of a challenge we did to raise funds during the event.” Said Adam.

“I have no idea how she ever took me seriously after that, but face paint works apparently.” He continued.

“She seemed like a really cool girl, and we hit it off so we decided to grab some drinks a few weeks later and it sort of just built from there.” Continued Adam.

Fast forward 6 years later and the couple are now happily married.

“We own a house together, have a dog, and got married last June. Rachel’s my best friend and partner for life.” Continued Adam.

As fate would have it, their lives would share another intersection in the May of 2017, when Adam was officially hired on as the new Communications Officer with BBBS.

“Rachel had moved on from BBBS a few years earlier, and this was an opportunity that presented itself for me.” Said Adam.

“It’s funny because I am doing my best to try and replicate and carry on some of the excellent work and communications standards Rachel had put in place during her time there. I still have access to all of her old folders and work! It’s pretty bizarre sitting in the same chair she did when we first met.” Said Adam.

“Life has a funny way of coming full-circle sometimes.” Continued Adam.

A Beautiful Transformation

School staff refer students to the In-School Mentoring program for a variety of reasons. In Jason’s case, it was in the hopes that he could form a friendship with someone that will help him to be calm. Jason has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder and in the past year has been struggling with some mental health issues. Jason has been matched in the ISM program before, but this year has been like none other.

In October of 2017, Jason was matched a volunteer named Tim. From the moment Jason met Tim, it was obvious that this was a match made in Heaven. One of Jason’s first comments was “I always wanted a boy mentor!” And that was that. From day one, these two had an immediate connection. Tim quickly became someone that Jason was excited to see and proud to spend time with.

During each visit, Tim was intentional about asking Jason how his week was, if he had anything new going on, as well as any plans for the coming weekend. It took time for Jason to meaningfully answer these questions, but over a few months, these little check-ins grew into conversations that would naturally take place as they spent the first portion of their visit simply walking around the school catching up.

Fast-forward to March 2018, it felt like a transformation was starting to occur. Mrs. K, one of the school staff could not fully express how much this friendship thrilled her. She now sees Jason as a happier, more alert kid. On one of the days that Jason and Tim were scheduled to meet, Jason came bouncing into the school with his stuffed lizard on his head and said through a beaming smile “I can’t wait to show Tim my lizard!” Mrs. K then jokingly asked if they (the school) could “keep Tim forever” and have him continue on to the Big Brothers program with Jason. She explained how beautiful their friendship is and remarked on how patient and kind Tim is with Jason.

Tim also speaks highly of his time with Jason. He believes that Jason is receptive to things he asks or teaches, including the importance of listening, which they had talked about most recently. But, the most moving part overall? When Jason was asked what he likes most about being with his mentor, an uncontrollable grin spread across his face and quickly looked down to his hands, shrugged and said “Tim is a really nice guy and is really nice to me.”

Stan Baerg: A Caseworker with a Big Heart

  • All credit for this story goes to Matthew Van Dongen and The St. Catharines Standard

Stan Baerg probably has the largest extended family in St. Cathrines. He has a wife, two daughters and at least 45 little brothers – a number that rises and falls depending on what kind of day Baerg has at work.

Baerg is a caseworker for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of St. Catharines, Thorold & Distirct, a service that matches volunteers with children who are in need of adult guidance, counselling or simple companionship.

The aim is to provide help for “at-risk” children of single parents, or of families where one parent is unable to provide care.

Baerg said volunteers take one or two days a week to spend time with their adopted siblings – taking them to work, playing sports or just “hanging out.”.

The benefits for the kids are huge said Baerg, who works primarily on the “brother” side of the service.

“You can see in some kids that if something isn’t done soon, they could be headed down the wrong road.” he said. “It’s important for these kids to have adult male companionship, to have someone who’ll be there for them.”

Baerg spends a lot of time trying to find new volunteers and setting up matches between an ever-growing list of seven-to-15 year old boys and a relatively smaller pool of adults.

He said that for reasons unknown to him, finding male volunteers is a bigger challenge than finding female volunteers.

Right now, the St. Catharines agency has 75 big and little brothers matched successfully, but there’s another 45 boys on the waiting list and the wait can last anywhere from one to two years.

That’s where Baerg comes in.

A couple times a week, Baerg will spend time with boys on the waiting list – hiking in Short Hills Provincial Park, fishing on Martindale Pond, mini-golfing at the Pen Centre, playing basketball at the gym.

“We have a lot of fun,” he said. “I look forward to it, getting to know them, seeing how they interact with each other, the kinds of things they talk about.”

“Sometimes, if I’m driving someone home, there’ll be some counselling that happens,” he said. “That’s important; if there’s a boy that needs (counselling), I’ll certainly do that.”

Baerg is always there to do what’s needed, said Big Brothers and Sisters board president Mary Lampman.

“We have a very limited budget; sometimes it’s all we can do to pay the staff,” she said. “Stan takes these kids places on his own, often spends his own money on them.”

“It’s remarkable, but it’s not a big deal to him…he’s been doing this sort of thing for kids for 20 years. The desire to help kids is part of what brought Baerg to Niagara in the first place.

In 1973, the Abbotsford, B.C., native visited St. Catharines as part of a church mission project aimed at helping juvenile delinquents in a group home.

“I came here, met a girl and decided to stick around,” he said laughing.

But in addition to his romantic interests, Baerg felt a strong connection with the youths at the group home – and frustration at not being able to help the troubled young people.

“There were so many things wrong for those kids, so difficult for them to build stable relationships,” he said. “it definitely made me want to get more training in this area.”

He got his training in social work at Mohawk College in Hamilton, which led to a placement at Big Brothers in Hamilton. After for years in Steeltown, he transferred in 1092 to the agency in St. Catharines, where he’s been ever since.

During that time, Baerg also immersed himself in youth programs at his church. In addition, his experience as a father has helped him relate to the kids he works with.

“I think it helped in terms of knowing the different aspects of raising teenagers the necessity for discipline, knowing what kids respond to.”

But one of the things Baerg loves about his job is that he never stops learning.

“I’m never bored; when you’re dealing with kids, you’re always learning,” he said.

“You can read a lot of things in a book, but the actual experience is always going to be different.”

A big part of his daily work comes in learning about the people he meets.

Baerg interviews two or three potential volunteers a month, and tries to match the personalities and interests of big brothers and kids. To be a Big Brother, volunteers must be 18 or older, have good references and no police record. Individuals with minor offences who are willing to pursue a pardon can also apply.

They also must be committed to the role. “It’s a serious commitment to make, you’re dealing with a boy’s life.” he said.

“The No. 1 thing is to not break promises. If you say you’re going to show up on a certain day at a certain time, you do it.”

That commitment can do wonders for children starved for male attention.

Aggressiveness, hyperactivity and problems controlling anger are common in kinds Baerg has seen in his 21 years with the St. Catharines agency.

“A quality relationship can help these boys make the right decisions, so they don’t end up in delinquent situations,” he said.

“We had one young man who was having trouble with fighting in school. After he spent some time with a Big Brother, that stopped.”

Baerg recalled another time when agency staff debated whether a 10-year old boy with cerebral palsy would be better off at another agency.

“But then we had a Big Brother come in who said he didn’t have any experience working with the physically disabled but wanted to try anyways.”

“We were amazed at the change in this boy,” he said.

Baerg said that before meeting his Big Brother, the boy had little confidence and tended to “hang back” from school activities.

But after spending time with the volunteer, the boy “started to get involved more, he played baseball…he talked to people about his Big Brother. All of a sudden, he had something to brag about.”

It’s obvious from the big smile on Baeg’s face that the memories that go along with his job are a constant source of pleasure.

“You see such joy in these kids when they talk about their big brother. it certainly keeps me going,” he said.

“It’s not the answer for everything, but it’s nice to be able to provide part of an answer to these difficulties.”

There’s little doubt in Baerg’s mind that big brothers do make a difference – especially now that former little brothers are coming back as adults to take their turn as volunteers.

“It’s great, because it means what happened to them as kids was really important to them, that what we’re doing is important,” he said.

Lampman said Baerg’s devotion to his job has seen the agency through some tough times.

When the agency’s executive director left unexpectedly last August, Baerg did his part to pick up the slack.

“He’s very dedicated; he’s taken about one sick day in the past 10 years,” Lampman said laughing.

“I’m a big believer in the cause,” he said. “The best part of the job, the highlight for me, is to be able to say ‘I’ve got a big brother for your son.'”

Not Just Homework

  • Credit for this story goes to Tiffany Mayer and The St. Catharines Standard

Imagine a world where students clamour to do their homework.

That seemingly other wordly vision is reality at Prince of Wales School in St. Catharines, thanks to a new homework club launched last month by Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Catharines, Thorold & District.

Called the Not Just Homework Club, it’s helping students tick assignments off their to-do lists and giving them the chance to be mentored by local high school students. It’s also giving bragging rights to the 10 students who have signed up to be part of the after-school endeavour made possible by an Ontario Triliiul Foundation Grant.

“The kids are talking about it and how they’re enjoying it and now other kids are saying they want to be part of it too.” says Frances Lettier, Big Brothers Big Sisters Director of Services.

When the hard work is done, they do crafts together or play board games.

“They’re actually developing a relationship with their mentor.” Lettieri said. “One volunteer said she can’t imagine missing a week because the kids get so attached to their mentor.”

In addition to helping with homework, the hope is the weekly tete a tetes will boost self-esteem and personal responsibility.

But what’s good for the protege is also good for the mentor, Lettieri noted. The program fosters a spirit of volunteerism among the high school students that Lettieri hopes they continue to have throughout their lives.

The program builds on their In-School Mentoring program, in which a volunteer visits with a child experiencing some difficulty art home or school.


** This story is written from the perspective of our Game On! Mentoring Coordinator **

When mentoring youth our efforts can often be difficult to measure. Our Game On mentors do their absolute best to impart positive guidance and healthy philosophies, but whether or not the boys truly appreciate and internalize this knowledge can often be very mysterious. This uncertainty of mentoring impact is exemplified through the experience of our mentors James and Emerson at St. Anthony’s elementary and their challenges with their mentee Shou-ren. When I inquired about their mentorship experience at the final session they expressed that it was very enjoyable overall, but both admitted skepticism and elements of frustration that, in particular, Shou-ren was a difficult personality to manage and probably didn’t learn much from the program. Shou-ren would consistently struggle listening and would shut down, pout, and try to leave the area if things didn’t go his way during games. They also distinctly remembered how adamant he was during one of the discussions that if you find a lost wallet on the ground you should take the money and not try to return it as he said that this is something that he was directly taught by adult figures in his life. James and Emerson strongly explained to him that it would be wrong to take the money, but it seemed that Shou-ren was stubborn with his convictions.

However, when it was Shou-ren’s turn to reflect on his Game On experience during the final session, he was perhaps the most sincere, articulate and impassioned about the rewards of the program of any boy at any school. He told me that “the first day of Game On we all had our barriers up with the mentors, but we immediately took them down as they made us feel comfy right away.” Shou-ren also enthusiastically explained that his favourite part about being with his mentors was them “playing the games with us but mostly the valuable lessons they taught us.” He said that they taught him “not to be bad because it makes life so much easier” and specifically mentioned that he learned that “if you find a lost wallet on the ground you should do your best to return it and not take the money.” Finally, he said that if he could describe Game On in one word he would describe it as “loveable.”

After speaking with Shou-ren I took a moment to explain what he had told me to James and Emerson. They both gave a wide smile with a noticeable exhale of pride, relief and satisfaction. It defined a moment when you realize that all of our efforts are worth it.


A Life Lesson

In December, one of our caseworkers did a match closing interview with a Big Brother. Andrew was with his match Nick for 5 years! The reason the match was closing was because Andrew was going away for training to be a police officer. He was also going to be proposing to his girlfriend, then hopefully planning a wedding. Life was getting busy for him. He told his little brother this and it went over well. Nick understood.

During the interview with Andrew I asked if there were any changes in Nick that he noticed over the five years. He stated that one of the highlights was hearing from Nick’s parents about how well he was doing and that they attributed that to his mentorship with Andrew.

However, the biggest success for which Andrew was proudest, came within the first year of the match. During outings to the driving range they would drive by MJ’s (a roadside, fast food, burger joint). One time they stopped in after the range and Andrew treated Nick to dinner and he was happy to do so. Nick loved it there! Then Andrew found out on a separate outing that Nick was a cigarette smoker, at 12 years old. This didn’t sit well with Andrew. They went to the driving range again and knowing how much Nick raved about the food he was treated to at MJ’s and that he would ask to go there after the driving range, Andrew had a plan. When Nick asked if they could go there again after the range, Andrew stated that they are not going there as long as Nick is a smoker. It didn’t take long for Nick to quit smoking and ask again after the driving range if they could stop in at MJ’s. Andrew had a small conversation with Nick about smoking… then took him to MJ’s. As far as Andrew is aware Nick quit smoking as they talked about it and he never smelled it on him again. He felt confident that Nick had indeed quit smoking at 12 years old.

A Big Voice

Everyone has a voice. Everyone has influence. We train everyone who engages in our programs in these things. Our Littles know that they have a voice, and it is always their choice if they use it. Both for good as well as anything negative. One of our Big Sister matches has taken this even further.

Last month, one of our very own Littles entered into her school’s public speaking competition. Not only did she crush her school presentation and win the public speaking contest, she did so well that she made it to the regional competition! She even memorized the entire speech!

Not only is that accomplishment exciting, the even more incredible part is that when this Little first came to the agency, she was experiencing a lot of change at home and really struggled with self-regulation when she was angry. This really impacted her social and relational abilities. Now, almost two years later, she is entering into public speaking competitions and really succeeding! She has also developed a strong, positive relationship with her Big, who is always trying new and exciting activities.

Her Big spoke so proudly of her and was excited to be able to attend the regional competition with the Little’s grandmother. This match has become more than anyone could have anticipated. The Big has encouraged her Little in trying different things that they could work on together and it appears that this has translated beyond the match.

Hailey and Teagan

Hailey and Teagan have been matched together for two school years in In-School Mentoring (ISM). Throughout their ISM match, they enjoyed playing different games, card games, and making up dances. This year they had talked together about moving their match into Big Sisters as they wanted to spend more time together and have the opportunity to do activities within their community.

Last week, Hailey and Teagan officially became sisters in our Big Sisters program! Both Hailey and Teagan were so excited, not just for the match, but that they could also spend their first official Big Sisters visit celebrating Teagan’s birthday together. Immediately following their match introduction at our agency, Hailey and Teagan headed out for a birthday brunch as Teagan’s birthday was the next day. These two are so excited to begin this next chapter of their friendship together. They already know that they want to spend time dancing, getting their nails done, and going to a make-up tutorial.

A Familiar Face: In-School Mentoring

Rebecca and Lynn have been matched for two school years in ISM. Lynn was referred to the program as she was struggling with some challenging dynamics at home, which was causing her to be sadder and more withdrawn. We simply wanted someone that would be her friend, someone she could talk to, someone to be a positive break in the middle of her week.

That is exactly what Lynn got, and then some. Rebecca admits that as she came into the program, she was unsure of what to expect.  After only three months of being matched, Rebecca reflected on the demeanor of her Mentee and expressed that “the fact that I can see what a positive impact this program has on my student as we both look forward to the time we spend together is what makes this satisfying…and I am proud to be a part of it.”

By the end of their first year together, Rebecca found the level of trust they developed was clear in what they could talk about. The Youth Counsellor at the school even remarked to her that Lynn “is much happier since your match began.” To top off all of these positive changes, Lynn reflected on her time with Rebecca and said that she “felt like we were best friends, my best friend forever. I cried when it ended because we are like sisters.”

At the end of each school year, we ask matches if they’d like to continue the following year. In Rebecca and Lynn’s case, they immediately agreed that they would like to continue the following September. Lynn was told that if Rebecca was still available we would re-open their match in September.

There are certainly instances where schedules change or people move, which prevents matches from continuing year to year. Much to Rebecca and Lynn’s delight, they were able to continue their match for a second year.

Now, almost two years in, Lynn has found when she is with Rebecca she can get away from problems with friends and simply enjoys “having someone to talk to.” Rebecca has also found that they have grown to be similar in liking the Came things. She now knows exactly what Lynn likes and can supply those things each week. Rebecca and Lynn are now used to seeing each other each week and find it strange if a week goes by where they don’t see each other.

It’s Okay to Stand Out in a Crowd

It’s Okay to Stand out in a Crowd.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out” – Dr. Seuss

Everyone is unique in their own way, but it is the individuals that are able to not only embrace every unique quality possessed by them, but also those possessed by others that truly stand out in a crowd.

Go Girl Harley is a prime example of this. A previously shy and quiet student working to figure out who she was just 3 short years ago in Go Girls has blossomed into an advocate for those around her. Harley was referred to as a ‘saint’ by her mentors in reference to natural talent to balance the personalities within their Go Girls group. Harley had a way of reigning in the more outgoing personalities, and ensuring students who may have otherwise been overshadowed in their reserved nature were heard and valued by each and every participant.