A Mom’s Story

Single mother of three girls under the age of twelve, Jennifer, shares her experience with Big Brothers Big Sisters St.Catharines-Thorold & District and “how much it has positively impacted not only her life, but the lives of her girls as well”. Jennifer never thought that she would be in a situation where she would be a single mother of three girls after her “husband of 21 years walked out on her family after disguising a drug addiction and a hidden affair with her best friend”. That left her and her daughters “depressed, heartbroken and wondering what would happen as they “were in a state of survival”.

Jennifer explained that “the separation had not been easy on her daughters, and as a mother, there is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing your children in so much pain and not knowing what to do about it” which is why she “decided to give the agency a call”. Jennifer described her hope that her oldest daughter, “who was eleven at the time and was hurting the most to cope, find someone she could talk to, and spend quality one on one time that I couldn’t provide for any of my children” due to the fact that now all of the “household and financial responsibilities for four people laid on her shoulders” which left almost no time for her to bond with my children.

Jennifer’s daughter “met the most spectacular lady” and she noticed “an instant bond”. She expressed her gratitude for the volunteers as “they all have so much heart, and truly don’t understand the impact they make on these children, going through some struggle in their lives”. After seeing how much her oldest had benefited from having a Big Sister in her life Jennifer decided to try this with her younger two children, and soon enough all three of them had big sisters. She described her decision to call the agency to be “one of the best decisions I have made in my entire life”. She has “seen her girls blossom so much in the short few years they have known their “big sisters” and the impact on their lives is amazing, they are happier, healthier children and that mentality has carried over into their school work and day to day social lives”.

She describes how her “three little girls witnessed their mother lose her best friend who they treated like a second mom and watch her run off with their father.  It was making it difficult for them to see the good in people, especially women”. It was not easy to escape “the fearful, distrustful mentality that everyone would end up betraying their trust in the end, but their Big Sisters have brought new life to their eyes, they are more confident, and independent and much happier”.

Jennifer expressed her gratitude once again, as “not only have the mentors been amazing to my family, but the entire agency staff, especially our caseworker, who gave her oldest daughter the amazing opportunity to apply for a scholarship, which would take immense financial stress off of her, and help her achieve her aspirations without having to be held back by our financial situations”. The caseworker “was phenomenal and patient” and the agency is “a warm friendly atmosphere full of people who begin to feel like family to you”.

Jennifer wanted everyone to know that Big Brothers Big Sisters is seen as something that “only lower class children headed in bad direction” would benefit from. However, “Big Brothers Big Sisters is an amazing opportunity for any family going through a hard time in their life and want to give their children a positive and healthy outlet and escape from their home life for a few hours, regardless of financial situation”. The agency is made up of “truly amazing people who have made a huge difference in our community”.

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Answering the Tough Questions

Glen and Cody make sure that there were never any questions left unasked. As part of the Game On program at Power Glen Elementary School, Glen and Cody implement the question box activity. This allows the boys in Game On to anonymously ask the Mentors questions, that they may not be comfortable asking others.

Game On provides boys in grades 6-8 with impactful mentorship through a variety of discussions and active games over 7 weeks. Glen and Cody are hopeful that the mentorship that they are able to provide to the boys at Power Glen Elementary School will help them make positive life choices as they grow up.

Both Glen and Cody are aspiring Police Officers who are generously volunteering their time, to make a positive impact on the lives of the boys in Game On. Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Catharines-Thorold & District would like to thank both Glen and Cody for the unforgettable experience they were able to provide the boys at Power Glen Elementary School.

Glen expressed that he “feel[s] that we were able to help guide the boys in a positive direction as mentors, while having fun as friends”. Cody believes that “through the Game On program, we were able to teach the mentees many life lessons, offer them tips and advice on some very important years they have ahead of them, all while playing sports, forming friendships and having a great time”.

Some Game On! Participants have shared that they “get to learn new things about how people deal with stress” and that “because of Game On [they] get excited for Mondays now”. We’re excited for Glen and Cody to come back and help mentor another group of boys who need guidance at such a critical stage in life.

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Keegan and Nicole

Some matches at Big Brothers Big Sisters have a way of impacting the mentor as much as the mentee. The story of Keegan and Nicole’s friendship started as a mentorship, but would quickly become something therapeutic for both.

“Keegan, like myself, was a Young Carer, and I saw a lot of myself in her. Young Carers are children, youth and young adults who are in a caregiving role for a family member needing assistance with their daily lived experience due to disabilities, illnesses, mental health issues, and addictions. Young Carers take on extra stresses and responsibilities, and as a result, can experience high levels of stress. Having experienced similar challenges as a youth, I recognized our outings together as a time for Keegan to take to take a break from her care giving roles and responsibilities.” says former Big Sister and friend, Nicole.

“Keegan, like myself, was a Young Carer, and I saw a lot of myself in her."

“Funnily enough, not long after Keegan and I were matched, I switched jobs to a youth agency that supported Young Carers. This position allowed me to connect Keegan to the Young Carers movement in our area. Keegan attended lots of the events I ran and organized with the agency alongside me and eventually volunteered and completed her school placement with the agency long after I left.” continued Nicole.

“Throughout our time together Nicole helped me in so many ways, one in particular was helping improve my self-esteem and showing me that there were other people in the Niagara Region like me. Nicole introduced me to the Young Carers program in St. Catharines, where I was able to attend some events with her and learn more about the organization and what it meant to be a Young Carer.” said Keegan.

Ultimately, the trend that began to emerge from this match was one of compassion and caring for others.

“Throughout our time together Nicole helped me in so many ways, one in particular was helping improve my self-esteem and showing me that there were other people in the Niagara Region like me."

“For me personally, mentoring Keegan mattered because I felt we both learned and grew so much from the experience; how to build and maintain relationships, how to communicate better and have hard conversations, how to problem solve and how to care and be cared for by another person.” Said Nicole.

“I have always been interested in helping at-risk youth and providing them with the support services they need to thrive in today’s society. This was definitely something I learned from Nicole and her experience working with Young Carers and being exposed to that environment.” Said Keegan.

This trend of caring for others would eventually come full circle some years later. While working as a Youth Outreach Worker, Nicole called on Keegan for some professional advice.

“My coworker and I were preparing for the Grow grant application process and needed some advice and support from another agency who had been a successful recipient. We noticed the Kristin French Advocacy Centre on the list. I recalled a Facebook post of Keegan’s stating she had started with the agency and reached out to Keegan for her experience with the Grow process.” Said Nicole.

“Keegan and I met at my office and were able to information share about our roles in the social service sector and the agencies we worked for. Keegan supported me through our application writing process and offered advice based on her experiences with the Trillium Foundation.” continued Nicole.

“I was able to provide Nicole with some insight in regards to the survey’s they ask us to have completed, the data collection needed and what our key areas that we are looking at. During this meeting we were able to share information on current roles in our organizations and what we were currently doing. This was a great way to network and learn more about each other’s roles and how we can assist each other with program referrals and client needs throughout the Region.” Said Keegan.

“Calling Keegan for help in a professional context felt like my mentoring experience had really come full circle. I am so proud of all she has accomplished! I may have walked her around the office introducing her to my coworkers as ‘my little’, with pride!” professed Nicole.

The question of whether or not being matched with Nicole helped inspire Keegan’s future career choice was a no-brainer.

“Calling Keegan for help in a professional context felt like my mentoring experience had really come full circle. I am so proud of all she has accomplished! I may have walked her around the office introducing her to my coworkers as 'my little', with pride!”

“Being in the BBBS program and knowing Nicole did have an impact on my decision to get into the field that I am in… I have always been interested in helping at-risk youth and providing them with the support services they need to thrive in today’s society. This was definitely something I learned from Nicole.” says Keegan.

“Keegan has done some really amazing things in life. It makes me smile to think that perhaps, even in a small way, I may have helped contribute to the accomplished person she is today. As much as I hope my mentoring Keegan had a positive effect on her life, I cannot say enough about how much having her in my life has changed me.” said Nicole.

To learn more about the Kristen French Child Advocacy Centre visit http://www.kristenfrenchcacn.org/

To learn more about the Niagara Falls Community Health Centre visit http://nfchc.ca/

To learn more about the Young Carers Initiative visit http://www.powerhouseproject.ca/

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Lewis and Zack: from Game On! to ISM

On September 12th, 2014 a young man named Lewis Lau made his first inquiry about becoming involved with Big Brother Big Sisters as a Mentor. Lewis came to Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Catharines-Thorold & District looking to make a positive influence of the youth of his community. Lewis had his application approved on October 23rd, 2014 and began mentoring shortly after in the Game On Program 4 days later. Little did he know just how much of a positive impact he would end up making on the youth of his community.

Lewis started Mentoring in the Game On program at St. Anthony’s Elementary School, as pictured above. Lewis had such an enjoyable experience in Game On, that he has now gone on to mentoring 3 groups of students through Game On. Lewis has now provided irreplaceable mentorship to 41 boys across St. Catharines.

Most recently, Lewis had completed Game On at Edith Cavell Elementary during fall of 2016. While Lewis was mentoring in Game On at Edith Cavell, he eventually began to grow a strong connection with a student named Zack that was participating in the Game On program. Both Lewis and Zack wished that Game On didn’t have to end, as they had really enjoyed each other’s company. Zack was interviewed at the end of the Game On and was asked what it was that he liked about Lewis. He answered by saying “he helps me take my mind off of all of the bad things in my life that I think about.” Afterwards Lewis was told about the significant positive impact that he made had on Zack. Lewis expressed how much it meant to him to be able to have this type of impact on a child’s life. It was at this point when Lewis had mentioned his interest in becoming involved in the In-School Mentoring Program. He shared how he feels that he has more great mentoring to offer. Lewis entailed how he would really enjoy being able to Mentor Zack on a 1-1 basis. As you could have predicted, Zack was ecstatic to hear of the news that he could now be with Lewis in a 1-1 mentoring relationship. Lewis and Zack are scheduled to begin their In-School Mentoring match in January of 2017. It just goes to show you how big of an impact that the Mentors if Big Brothers Big Sisters can have on a child.

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A Longstanding Partnership: United Way

You’re only as strong as your community partners, and in United Way of St. Catharines and District – we have been blessed with a partnership that dates back 60 years.

They have been our backbone, helped our agency re-group and reorganize after our displacement during World War II, and helped see that Big Sisters was incorporated into our agency in 1983. Much of our history is tied to theirs.

The United Way acts as an “umbrella organization”, raisings funds to support programs offered by community organizations through workplace campaigns, community donors, corporate donations, labour partners, special events and grants. A Community Investment Committee comprised of trained volunteers reviews the funding applications from these organizations, and makes recommendations to the United Way’s Board of Directors on how they should be best allocated.

Currently, the United Way of St. Catharines helps to fund, in-part, our traditional Big Brothers Big Sisters programs and our In-School Mentoring program.
To learn more about United Way St. Catharines and District visit https://www.unitedwaysc.ca/

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A “Muddy Match”

Nadia and Bella, who both have endless energy and are always up for a fun challenge, took on the Pelham Mudfest on Saturday May 6th sponsored by PenFinancial, and in support of our neighbouring BBBS Niagara Falls Agency.

When Nadia first told her little sister about the event, she noticed the immediate excitement, and knew it was a great fit when Bella added “I ain’t scared of mud”.

The cold and rainy weather that day was less than ideal for an outside event, and even made the match first question their decision to participate.  Nadia first ran the adult 6km course which took about an hour and five minutes to finish while her Little Sister waited with Nadia’s mom. Then it was Bella’s turn, and she completed the kid’s special 1km course.

Nadia enjoyed watching Bella navigate and run throughout the course yelling “OMG!! I didn’t think there would be this much mud!!!”. Regardless, she too completed her course – and they were both happy they chose to participate. They shared lunch with other participants, and Nadia added that knowing it was going to support Big Brothers Big Sisters made it even better.

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Bowl for Millions

With successful “Bowl-a-thon” tournaments starting to emerge in Toronto and Barrie, discussions began in October 1976 to start one of our own. After deciding there was insufficient time to run a tournament for 1977, it was decided to focus all efforts on making the debut event in 1978, called Bowl for Millions. The kick-off event for the Bowl for Millions campaign was Saturday, February 11th, 1978 at Parkway Lanes. The first-year event was a huge success and ended up making over $6000 and created huge exposure for the agency, leading to an increase in Big Brother volunteers. This event would eventually pave the way for our coast-to-coast Bowl for Kids Sake campaign, and nearly 40 years later we’re still holding a bowling event at Parkway Lanes!

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Dan and Justin

Justin first became involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters in the year of 2011, while attending Niagara College in the recreation and leisure program. Through a school placement, he was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer in multiple schools as a Game On! volunteer mentor. What an impactful and rewarding experience it was for him!

After graduating from Niagara College, he wanted to continue making a difference with the youth of the community. In order to do this, he needed to balance multiple part-time jobs, as a full-time position in his field of work was difficult to find. That all changed in 2015 when he came across a job posting with Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Catharines – Thorold & District. Justin knew right away that this was where he wanted to work. He went through 2 intense interviews with Dale Davis and Francis Lettieri.

As good as Justin felt about the interviews, they actually decided on hiring someone else for the position. That person being none other than, Dan Nikkel, a longtime Mentoring Coordinator with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Justin was obviously very disappointed to not get the position. He now looks back to a question he thought little of when it was first asked: “Would you like to be considered in the future for any other openings we may have”. Justin put aside his disappointment and said “Yes, of course.”.

A few months later, he got a call from Fran asking if he would still be interested in joining the BBBS team, as she felt there was position that really suited his skill set. That position was for the Game On! Mentoring Coordinator. Justin was invited for an interview for the position, and shortly after walked out of the office with a brand-spankin’ new job! The best part is that Justin and Dan went on to become incredibly close friends at work, but Dan will always have “I got hired first!” to hold over Justin’s head.

Justin’s last day with us was Thursday, October 19th and we know both him and Dan will be unbelievably successful in whatever they pursue next. Thanks for the memories, you two!

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Joe and Jamie

Jamie Gordon believes that he owes much of who he is today to the guidance and support he received from his two ‘big brothers’ during his time with Big Brothers Big Sisters St. Catharines, Thorold & District. Jamie attributes the recognition of his woodworking and carpentry skills, and now career path, to his first big brother Dean. It was however, his second big brother Joe that seems to have had a lasting impact on his life. Jamie’s “wild child personality” (as his mother described), was a great match for the recently retired Joe Dwyer. Jamie indicated that “Joe met me head on, and for an old guy, was pretty strong and held quite a youthful heart”. As Jamie reflects on this relationship, he has found that Joe was present as he learned countless valuable life lessons in regards to relationships and character.

Joe was there for some momentous occasions in Jamie’s life including helping him establish his first lawn mowing job, to helping him set up a bank account, all the while providing him with endless tips and lessons on how to save. It was because of these lessons that Jamie was able to support his passion for hockey, and put himself back on the ice. Jamie and Joe’s connection through hockey didn’t stop there. At one point, Joe had gotten season tickets to the Thorold Junior B team and this became a weekly event that the pair attended together. From there Jamie’s love and admiration for hockey hit an all-time high when Joe took him to his first NHL game where he watched the Buffalo Sabres take on the Pittsburgh Penguins. He left the arena that night with autographs from some of the Penguins players, and stars in his eyes. To this day, Jamie stills shows off his favourite picture from that night, with him and his hockey icon – Jaromir Jagr.

Joe also inspired Jamie in the lifestyle he lived. As a Big Brother, not only are you a friend to a child, but you also become a significant role model. Joe was a man of faith and would occasionally talk about his faith with Jamie, since Jamie also attended a Catholic School. In Grade 8, it was time for Jamie to have his confirmation and not only did he need support, but he also needed to be baptized. Joe ended up baptizing and being a God Parent to Jamie as well as his two brothers. Joe’s support of Jamie was endless. Jamie reflected on some of the simplest, though most memorable, outings he had with his big brother throughout the years. “We spent many outings just taking a trip out to Shorthills or to Rockway Glen just to take a hike…we took advantage of this time to discuss thoughts and feelings and it was an opportunity to get something off your chest”. Jamie identified these places as one of the few where he found peace. He now takes trips there with his children when they need to talk, or even if he just needs to clear his head.

Over time, Joe’s family became his own. Jamie remembers being accepted with open arms and feeling like he belonged. This was new to him. Jamie’s father had never been a part of his life, and this made his paternal family very distant. His mother’s family all lived in Alberta, and therefore he didn’t have much of a relationship with them either. It was having Joe, and being openly accepted into his family, that he really feels made a significant impact on his life. When Joe’s wife (Fran) passed away, Jamie was devastated. Not only had he never lost anyone close to him before, but he witnessed Joe’s pain and how he dealt with it. He indicated that this was “the first time I can say I began to understand what commitment of marriage was and love for that matter. It’s the commitment of working through EVERY ONE of life’s challenges, good and bad, and let God sort out the rest”.

It wasn’t too long after while Jamie was in his 20’s that his mother passed away. When Joe heard that Jamie’s mother had passed away, he spent three days trying to locate Jamie. Once he found him, he took him home and then took a drive to their favourite place – Shorthills. Jamie was able to talk, cry, and let go of anger that he had been bottling up. Looking back, Jamie realizes that he “needed a friend to learn to grow up, to stand by me when I made mistakes, and to direct me in the right direction.” Joe was that person.

Years later, Jamie found Joe again.  Joe said that he was very proud of how well Jamie was living his life. Leaving Joe that day was one of the hardest things Jamie had done, because it was then that Jamie realized that he was leaving his best friend – someone who was there during the times when he needed a friend the most. Jamie “needed a friend to learn to grow up and stand by me when I made mistakes…without passing judgement and direct me in the right direction in order to correct it”, and Joe was that friend.

Recently, Jamie reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Catharines-Thorold and District to publicly recognize Joe for his many years of guidance and support. Jamie indicated that “words will never be enough and it starts with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and Stan Baerg. Had BBBS not been there I wouldn’t have been blessed to of met these two great men (Dean & Joe) and can say I really don’t know where I’d be today. It really goes to show you age is truly just a number”.

On a beautiful Saturday morning, Jamie and Joe were surrounded by their families as they gathered with Big Brothers Big Sisters staff to recognize and celebrate Joe’s dedication and support of Jamie and the BBBS agency. Stories were shared, by Jamie and Joe, as well as countless words of thanks and admiration from agency staff. Both Joe and Jamie were lost for words during this celebration. But for those who were there, the love, respect and connection that these two shared could certainly be felt. It was the simple, yet overwhelmingly impactful outings and conversations that Joe and Jamie had that allowed Jamie to trust and respect an adult who cared about him and took the time to be a friend when he really needed one. Because of Joe, Jamie has said that “I am living my life happily with the confidence that there is no mountain too big I can’t move.”  It is because of volunteers like Joe, that the agency is able to continue service children and youth and to share stories of trials, tribulations and triumphs.

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Making a “BIG” Difference in the Dominican Republic

My name is Courtney. I’ve been a big with Big Brothers Big Sisters Niagara for about 2 1/2 amazing years. This past November, I had the chance to take a life changing trip and go build a house in the Dominican with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Every year when I saw the email go out, I contemplated going, but never went. This year something made me go, and I’m so grateful for whatever that “something” was.

We were a diverse group of 14 individuals, Bigs, Littles, and caseworkers alike, representing most of Canada. We may have been strangers at first, but 10 days later we were a little family, and the community we built in is now our home. To say the trip was life changing is an understatement. For those of you who see the emails and hesitate, I urge you to go!

The company we went with, Live Different, uses the principal of sustainable development. Which means instead of going there and just building a house and leaving, we employed local contractors to help us, bought supplies locally, and spent a lot of time interacting and building relationships with community members. While we had translators to help us, at times it felt like there was no language barrier, we just seemed to find ways to communicate. It was incredible to see how alike we were despite our differences.

“in your life, try to do one really, really good thing. Even if you don’t do anything else good, just do that one really good thing. If everyone in the world did one really good thing, think about what a different place this world would be”.

The community we built in, Nuevo Renacer, had just experienced a devastating flood, their proximity to the ocean means that anytime the water level rises, it threatens to take out entire homes and streets and just wipe them away into the ocean. Somehow, despite the apparent tragedy, the spirit and courage of everyone was palpable. Everyone was ready and willing to lend a hand where needed, even if their house had also experienced flooding.

We built for a wonderful deserving family. A wife and husband with one child. The husband was in the army, one of the lowest paid jobs in the Dominican. Their child was a planned pregnancy, something almost unheard of in the community, and they were waiting to have a second child until they could be sure they could afford to care for it. Giving them a new and secure house meant they could consider adding a second child to their beautiful family.

There were moments of joy, and of course sadness, but with every moment of sadness we were reminded there is always hope. The locals see the blue bus we arrive in and know that someone, somewhere is getting a new house. We were a sign of hope. To be apart of something like that was simply indescribable and I can’t wait to go back next year.

A very wise man I spoke with in the Dominican gave me this advice: “in your life, try to do one really, really good thing. Even if you don’t do anything else good, just do that one really good thing. If everyone in the world did one really good thing, think about what a different place this world would be”.

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Marty and Gyasi

Long-time volunteer and ambassador to our agency, Marty Mako, talks about the importance of volunteerism and his bond with his Little Brother, Gyasi.

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Emily and Rebecca

Emily met Rebecca met when she was in her first year at Niagara College, in 2008. Rebecca had been on the wait list for quite some time, because of a listed allergy to pet dander. Emily didn’t have any pets so once she completed her application, she was matched up with her immediately.

“Rebecca and I were a great match from the start. She was very quiet, but over time, we developed a great friendship and mutually enjoyed our time together.  By the end, I was happy to be able to have frank conversations with her about each other. While it was a mentorship relationship, it was also important to me to show Rebecca the importance of being a good friend, as well.” says Emily.

“We did all kinds of stuff together. We were both active and up for anything, but also we are realistic with timeliness and the busyness of our lives. Meeting up every week ranged from simply coming over for dinner and hanging out for a bit, to going biking, rollerblading, bowling, swimming and more.  Though Rebecca was tentative, she was also a great sport, and was willing to try anything, after her mother or I could coax her into it :)” continues Emily.

Their memories together are fond.

“I appreciated how great my family was with Rebecca, and how they were able to build a relationship with her as well. I remember having her over for dinner at my parents which was fun. I remember her climbing a tree in my parent’s backyard and not realizing how quickly she could climb. Next thing I knew, we were calmly trying to tell her to make her way down the tree.”

Rebecca believes mentorship matters because it provides another role model for children.

“Some kids need that, not necessarily because they are in a bad situation in their family, but because they don’t naturally find themselves in a broad community. Mentoring, specifically with Big Brothers Big Sisters expands a child’s world, giving them exposure to more people, different perspectives and different opportunities that they might not have otherwise. It enhances a child’s perspective to hear from others and have positive role models to consider when developing their character, personality and life choices.”

“Volunteering is important for the exact same reasons. It expands your exposure and broadens horizons.  That is why I have always loved volunteering.  It allows you to connect with people you would not have otherwise.  This was one of the ways I did that and was very glad I did. It is a powerful program with great results. I was honoured to be a part of Rebecca’s life for those few years and invited into their family. I will never forget that.”

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