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Big Brothers Big Sisters Sees A Spike In Demand, But Bringing Volunteers And Kids Together Is A New Challenge

Tiffany Willis (L) and Jada Jackson were matched by Big Brothers Big Sisters three years ago.
Tiffany Willis
Tiffany Willis and Jada Jackson were matched by Big Brothers Big Sisters three years ago, and they've stayed in touch virtually throughout the pandemic.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has connected Kansas City children with adult mentors since 1964, but as cries for racial justice inspire prospective volunteers, the pandemic creates entirely new obstacles.

18-year-old Jada Jackson can’t stop herself from crying when she describes how happy she recently made Tiffany Willis, the Big Sister assigned to her by Kansas City’sBig Brothers Big Sisters program three years ago.

Jackson had just finished putting together a Race and Perspective presentation for the organization that brought them together. Willis saw what she’d done and beamed, which Jackson noticed and took to heart.

“I like making people happy and not being a disappointment and making people proud,” Jackson says. “I go through a lot with my family, and I don’t have anyone to talk to, but I can come to her.”

Jackson aged out of the program in May when she turned 18, but she and Willis have been together long enough that they’re bonded like family, which Jackson emphasizes by twisting two of her fingers together.

Jada Jackson graduated from Hogan Preparatory Academy in May.
Tiffany Willis
Jada Jackson graduated from Hogan Preparatory Academy in May.

The two have weathered the pandemic together virtually, as have the nearly 1160 pairs of Kansas City kids (or Littles, in organizational lingo) and volunteers (known as Bigs). There is no specific criteria for becoming a Little, aside from being in second to eleventh grade, and wanting the guidance and friendship of a reliable adult in the community. The goal is to "defend potential" through relationships that increase self-esteem, improve grades, and create opportunities.

The pandemic has young people in greater need of connection than ever; 334 kids are waiting for matches.

Derrick Jennings is a Big. He's also a brand ambassador for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and he says he knows that the young people they serve could benefit from the extra attention these relationships offer, but the organization can't currently see the very community they want to help. And he means that literally.

Prior to the pandemic, Big Brothers Big Sisters did all of its recruiting, outreach, and screening face to face. Many of the families—mostly single parent households—don’t have the technology to connect virtually, as the organization has been forced to do in recent months.

"The very thing that was causing the need was also compromising our ability to connect with them,” Jennings says.

Jennings notes that in the aftermath of recent protests, the organization had an influx of interest in the volunteer program. Many of the new registrants said they wanted to be part of the solution to racial disparity and tensions in the city.

“I think right now we’re over 700 Bigs who are interested in being in our program,” Jennings says.

He describes two challenges that make it hard to benefit from all that good will. One is that the organization requires in-person screening and home visits for prospective Bigs. The other is that many of the volunteers don’t live close to where the need is greatest.

Big Brothers Big Sisters matches children to adults who live in the same community, no more than a 15- to 20-minute drive apart.

Most Bigs come from Johnson County, downtown Kansas City, or the Northland. The majority of children on the waiting list live in eastern Jackson County, Lee’s Summit, Raytown, and Grandview.

The critical nature of these connections is statistically clear. Jennings says that families seeking mentors for their kids are overwhelmingly from the 25 percent of metro homes with only one parent. “But from that 25 percent," he explains, "the [children] represent 90 percent of juvenile court cases, 90 percent of high school dropout rates, and 60 percent of teen suicides.”

Among the children participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters, those numbers look different; 97 percent had no involvement in the court system, and for the past few years, all have graduated from high school.

Willis, a psychologist in Lenexa, says it was the numbers that pushed her to become a Big three years ago. The statistic that really got to her was that three quarters of the children on the waiting list were African American.

“I can’t just hear that statistic and not doing anything about it,” Willis says.

Jennings says the organization is scrambling to get families without internet access set up with hot spots and other tech support. That's not part of their mission, but because the technology gap interrupted the fulfillment of their mission, they decided to step up.

For most of their relationship, Willis and Jackson have spent their time together trying new restaurants, watching movies, going to church, and cooking. Since March they’ve only seen each other on a screen.

Willis says she thinks they’ll manage an outing soon; Jackson has just gotten a car, so they won't have to worry about a rule implemented during the pandemic that matches can’t be in a car together.

Jackson says that online or in person, the connection is meaningful to Littles.

“Them knowing they have someone, even if it’s just a phone call because of the COVID-19," she says. "I think they would really appreciate having someone to talk to.”

That's why Big Brothers Big Sisters is pushing hard to make use of all the new volunteers, despite the obstacles of geography and technology. Jennings says that by the third week of September the organization expects to have matched 220 of the kids on that long waiting list with new friends.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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