‘bigs & littles’

UB students mentor children in Big Brothers Big Sisters program

Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke : Photos by Mark Mulville

From left: Shachiah, her big sister, Joseliana Villaman, and fellow student Danasia.

FIFTH-GRADER SHACHIAH enters the room beaming, her luminous eyes quickly fastening on someone she has come to adore. In a moment, there will be hugs all around. Each week, in an after-school program at Buffalo’s Public School #53 (PS 53), Shachiah finds inspiration and encouragement in spending time with “Big Sister” Joseliana (“Josie”) Villaman, a UB sopho-more from Franklin Square, NY. With Villaman, she can talk the way sisters do about school or clothes or her many necklaces. Or the 11-year-old can explore her ambitions to be a chef and attend Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts for high school.

Mostly, though, Shachiah likes to have fun with Villaman, whether it’s skipping rope with an impressive twisting and turning variation called “teddy bear,” coloring, playing board games or sprinting around the gym, often at breakneck speed on piggyback.

Villaman has been matched with Shachiah since March 2007. Getting to know Shachiah, Villaman says, was one reason she decided to switch her UB major from business administration to psychology and communication, with a minor in health and wellness.

“Working with Shachiah has helped me to see how important it is to do things that make me happy and that my heart wants to do, not just to do things because it might pay good money or something like that,” Villaman observes. “I love coming here and getting to know someone as great as Shachiah. I recognize that I have the opportunity to maybe influence someone, and Shachiah seems so determined—it means a lot.”

“Every time we come here, we make something,” says Lindsay, 7, of her time with big sister Jill Huelser.

“She’s supportive; she likes to have fun just like me,” Shachiah chimes in. “I have four sisters—including a baby sister—Josie is like my fifth sister.Whatever she teaches me, I’ll teach somebody else, and then they’ll teach somebody, who will teach someone else ….”

In choosing to contribute her time, Villaman joins about 100 other UB students who each week break from their studies and jobs to serve as mentors, either riding a campus shuttle bus or carpooling for this meaningful time with their “littles.” They’re all volunteers in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie County, which was founded in 1971 as Be-A-Friend by its current CEO, Robert Moss, BA ’73, then a UB math major who went on to teach at Buffalo’s Burgard High School for 32 years. Since 1981, Moss’s organization has been affiliated with the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, whose current president is a fellow UB graduate, Judith Vredenburgh, MBA ’75.

With Big Brothers Big Sisters, UB students’ reasons for volunteering are as diverse as their individual interests and majors; their involvement, moreover, is another dimension of UB’s fulfilling its public service mission. Natalie Levy, a sophomore and psychology major from Hewlett, NY, came to the program serendipitously. “I stumbled upon a flyer in the Student Union and became very interested, because I hope to work in the field of psychology when I graduate,” Levy says. “I always try to take on jobs where I can work with kids and I really enjoy mentoring people. I thought this would be a great opportunity—it has proved to be that and a lot of fun as well.”

Levy patiently answers questions, but has to run off when she’s playfully taken “to jail” in a game the children at PS 53 have devised that uses gymnastic mats to form the walls of a very soft enclave. She laughs, makes her excuses and mimics being handcuffed.

Throughout the week in the cheerful Family Resource Center at PS 53, Pamela McGarvey Brown, MSW ’03 & BA ’98, has occasion to notice the progress of about 40 children who are “little brothers and sisters.” In her role overseeing several agencies that provide nonacademic services after school, Brown sees the children come tumbling in when classes end, to be greeted by their UB mentors. “Is my big sister coming today?” asks one little girl just before the UB brigade arrives.

“Our kids need as many positive role models as possible,” says Brown. “What you notice first is how much the children look forward to meeting their big brother or big sister. They’ll remember details from their last meeting and are really in tune to ‘the big,’” she says, using the group’s easy parlance for big and little siblings. “For the long-term matches—those lasting a year—you’ll see the most positive progress: They’re doing better in school, they’re more respectful, they’re getting along better with others.”

About 35 children at PS 53 currently are awaiting matches. This is partly a matter of recruitment, but also reflects the agency’s reluctance to match volunteers with children this close to the end of the academic year. Youngsters enter the program in a number of ways. Often they’re referred by teachers who may have noticed some need for individualized attention. Or the parent may feel his or her child could benefit from the program’s carefully monitored mentoring.

“It could be an academic performance problem, or the child doesn’t have a support system or is simply looking for friendship,” Moss explains. Citing a 1995 research study by Public/Private Ventures that resulted in greater public awareness of mentoring and its value, he adds: “Mentoring has been shown to be one of the more effective preventive tools in dealing with kids who have problems at home, in school or in the community.”

Bijan Nezami is the goalie as his little brother, Matthew, takes a shot.

Bijan Nezami, a UB sophomore biomedical science major from Auburn, NY, first learned about Big Brothers Big Sisters at a booth in UB’s Ellicott Complex. He liked what he heard, filled out the paperwork and talked it up with his friends. Now, accompanied by Travis Hansen and Henry (“Max”) Bacher—fellow UB sophomores and biomedical science majors—he carpools each Thursday to Buffalo’s Seneca Babcock Community Center. There the trio happily mentors three boys who are enrolled in Southside Elementary School, Public School #93.

Nezami’s “little” is Matthew, 10. His eyes light up the moment he enters the center and spots his “big.” Soon, Matthew and Nezami are off to play “hockey,” certainly in one of its most creative adaptations, in an upstairs gym with a foam ball formerly used in dodgeball and children’s soccer goalposts. Matthew is the goalie in this impromptu match and high-fives Nezami when he blocks the “puck,” or scores a point after switching positions.

“It’s fun knowing someone who likes the same things,” says Matthew.
When there’s a break from athletics, the two talk about Matthew’s recent trip to Las Vegas with his family and how his knee is feeling, now that the cast has been removed following a sledding accident.

“I notice that Matthew has improved a lot with his social skills,” says Nezami. “He’s now comfortable coming each week. He gets to look up to me, but I look up to him. This experience has developed my character—I realize that he’s not just a kid, he’s a true person. He puts his trust in me, and I have to develop my skills so he’ll look up to me—I have to be a good role model.”

“Building a relationship with someone from outside gives our kids increased self-motivation,” says PS 93 principal Theresa (“Terry”) Schuta. “And the one-on-one time really helps them with completion of homework and improving their academic side [overall]. It’s a good recipe for success.”

Two years ago, UB began to provide campus shuttle service for the UB student volunteers, along with providing a small office in the Student Union. After running buses twice a week for the first year, the university now provides buses four days a week, ferrying the UB students to the site—either a Buffalo public school or a community center—where children gather after classes have been dismissed.

“UB students wanted to help,” says Dennis R. Black, JD ’81, UB’s vice president for student affairs. “Young people in the community were in want of assistance. The UB–Big Brothers Big Sisters partnership matched student interest and enthusiasm with a clear community need. That’s what partnership is all about, on an institutional basis and one-on-one.”

“Previously, we had a smattering of students from the UB campus along with a smattering of students from other area campuses,” says Moss. “Now we really have a major focus at UB, where students either come to the site location on the bus, or provide their own transportation.” While Big Brothers Big Sisters draws volunteers from other area colleges, UB is the only area institution of higher learning where the program maintains a satellite location. Moreover, Moss attributes his agency’s recent ranking as among the top Big Brothers Big Sisters affiliates nationally for match growth, in part, to the UB connection. “There is no question that part of that growth—14 percent over the previous year in the number of children served—happened because of the partnership with the University at Buffalo,” he says. “Absolutely.”

Matthew’s sister, Lindsay, 7, is also a participant in the program and a first-grader at PS 93. Her keen interests are in artwork and board games, and she happily explores these activities with Jillian (“Jill”) Huelser, a senior communication major from West Hampton, NY. “Every time we come here, we make something,” Lindsay remarks.

The two like to play Pictionary or Twister—“she always beats me,” acknowledges Huelser—then work on crafts. “Sometimes you use too much glue,” Huelser says gently. “Sometimes you put on a little too much, too,” retorts Lindsay, with a sly, sideways grin, never taking her eyes off the delicate task of affixing stars, circles and squiggly lines to her artwork.

Loretta Sun, a sophomore health and human services major from Brooklyn, with her little brother, Jay’lyn.

In all their interactions, an unforced, unhurried quality prevails. “Just last week we made some fun projects as well, with popsicle sticks, pom-poms, and heart, square and triangle cut-outs,” Huelser says. “We did not make anything in particular, just bright- and fun-colored projects.” Indeed, mentors are encouraged to spend time with the children in a manner that responds to their immediate needs and interests. While theirs is not an academic purpose, mentors can help with homework and often do.

“Until recently, I was a single parent and my son, especially, needed an extra someone in his life,” says Matthew and Lindsay’s mom, Shannon. “It took a year to place him but it was worth it. My son loves going and he loves hanging out with Bijan. His self-esteem has gone up; overall, he has a better attitude and is more mature. And my daughter, to have a big sister—someone other than her mother—is very helpful, since my entire family resides out-of-state. Jill is so good with Lindsay—she’s so creative and artistic.”

“It is amazing to know that just two hours of your week can be so beneficial to a child’s life,” says Huelser. “Lindsay is such a great, loving girl, and it makes me feel so happy to see her walk into the room every Thursday with a bright smile on her face, greeting me with a hug.

“Everyone needs that special friend—that one person to look up to and tell secrets to and share stories with. Although I am three times Lindsay’s age, she is such a special friend whom I will remember forever.”

Ann Whitcher-Gentzke is editor of UB Today.

Editor’s note: To learn more about volunteering opportunities across the country with Big Brothers Big Sisters, go to www.bbbs.org.

To read more on mentoring click here.