Though in virtual mode, BBBSRI seeking mentors

Though in virtual mode, BBBSRI seeking mentors

Kelley Sontag, of Plainville, Mass., right, and her mentee, Khloe Kenerson, of Woonsocket, have been matched by Big Brothers Big Sisters Rhode Island since June of 2018. 

Though the pandemic has made the process of mentoring more difficult, leaders at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island say it’s more critical than ever for children, especially those who are isolated and experiencing limited opportunities to see friends or go out into the community, to have someone to support them.

“We really want to make sure that people know that we are still active and we’re matching,” Tiana Ochoa, director of mentoring programs at BBBSRI, told The Breeze. “Even though it’s virtual, it still has an impact.”

January marks national mentoring month, and Ochoa said the entire month is dedicated to bringing awareness about the need for and importance of mentoring. Given the start of the new year and with people making resolutions, she said they tend to see an influx of people who want to get involved this month. Since the fall, staff have been enrolling new mentors and families, virtually, she noted. Mentors don’t need to have any special skills or background.

“Anyone who’s willing to commit the time to a child can be a mentor,” she said, adding that they should also be able to be patient, supportive, and present for their mentee.

“Children with mentors have shown increased self-esteem, higher self-confidence, better interpersonal skills, improved relations with friends and family, along with better academic achievement,” according to the BBBSRI website.

Ochoa said there’s a need for more diverse mentors, including mentors of color.

Before the pandemic, mentors and mentees, called Bigs and Littles, spent between six to 10 hours together a month, she noted.

While all mentoring since March has turned virtual, BBBSRI staff are working hard to keep everyone engaged and involved, including with virtual events such as bingo and by providing online resources for mentors, she said.

“It’s not ideal because it’s not what they initially signed up for,” she said, noting that a crux of the program is being able to go out and do fun things in the community. That said, “the matches have done all kinds of things to stay connected.”

Kelley Sontag, of Plainville, Mass., who has mentored Khloe Kenerson, 12, of Woonsocket, since June of 2018 said that staying connected during the pandemic was a rough transition at first, but they’ve been able to video chat, text, and find creative things to do, including a virtual spa night.

“It’s been very positive for her,” said Sarah Wilbur, Kenerson’s mom, adding that Sontag has been a strong female role model for her daughter. “Kelley has been phenomenal with her.”

Kenerson said that Sontag helps her with her homework and that they do fun things together. “I think other people should (mentor) because it gives you a compatible friend to be with,” she said. “They’re a lot of fun to be around, and they’re really, really nice. I just love Kelley so much.”

Sontag said she thought joining BBBSRI would be a huge time commitment “but it’s so easy,” she said. The organization “does a really good job at matching you up. We have a lot of the same interests.” Before the pandemic, the two would meet in person for events such as painting, hikes, a Patriots preseason game, an Ed Sheeran concert, and more, she said.

“I think that mentoring is important,” she said. “(Kenerson) does have a great family, but I think it’s really helpful to have someone who is an impartial person to talk to. It’s been great to see her become more independent. … That’s been really gratifying.”

“I encourage people to jump into it and do it,” she added. “It’s just been such a fantastic experience.”

Jonathan Burns, of Cumberland, whose Little is 13-year-old Joshua Pierre Toussaint, of Woonsocket, agreed that being a mentor is a great opportunity and it’s not as hard of a commitment as people may think. The two have been matched since November of 2018.

Burns said the Big Brothers Big Sisters motto of “if we can see it, we can be it” is a major reason he became involved in the organization. Showing kids what opportunities exist for them in terms of education and careers is important.

“There are certainly circles I’ve seen in my 20 years (of working) where people like Josh get frozen out,” he said. “I’m not saying Josh needs to go into corporate America but he needs to know that that’s a possibility. … I want him to be aware of some of the good jobs that are out there.”

Pierre Toussaint, he said, is a great kid and not a handful, which is what he expected when he joined the program, adding that mentors have the opportunity to make their mentees’ lives better and vice versa.

Pierre Toussaint said it’s nice having Burns as a mentor because “if I have a problem I know I can come to him.” Burns provides extra support if he doesn’t feel comfortable telling his mom something, he added.

Before the pandemic, Burns said he and Pierre Toussaint went to museums and ballgames but have had to switch to FaceTime calls, playing online video games, and having breakfast over Zoom once a month.

Carine Saint Felix, Pierre Toussaint’s mom, said she loves the program and wishes her son joined sooner. “Having that support (from Burns) really helps him a lot. … He has completely turned around.”

The single mother said having an adult man he can talk to has made a difference in her son’s life and added that it helped her when she was too busy to take her son to basketball games or other events. She said she encourages more people to mentor, saying that it can change somebody’s life. “I know that it has changed my life,” she said.

For more information or to get involved, visit www.bigsri.org .

Jonathan Burns, of Cumberland, and mentee, Joshua Pierre Toussaint, of Woonsocket, at the Boston Museum of Science pre-pandemic.