January 20th, 2021

Big Brothers Big Sisters use ingenuity to keep operating

By Lethbridge Herald on July 10, 2020.

Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Lethbridge and District executive director Jenn Visser says COVID-19 has presented significant challenges to the normal mentoring process in the district, but they are persevering in keeping those relationships intact by finding creative ways around these challenges. Herald photo by Tim Kalinowski

Tim Kalinowski
Lethbridge Herald
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lethbridge and District have faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, but have also found new resilience and ingenuity to make themselves stronger as an organization.
“We moved all our relationships to virtual,” explains the organization’s executive director Jenn Visser. “We didn’t want our relationships to just end because the kids we serve have maybe had a lot of instability in their lives, and haven’t had that consistent person, or have had people going in and out of their lives; so we really encouraged all our matches to continue to see each other through Facetime calls, phone conversations, texting, and through maybe some sort of social media. That seems to work well. We also never stopped our recruitment of volunteers.”
This virtual innovation has allowed the organization to expand its program offerings to meet the new challenges kids in the community are facing due to the coronavirus.
“We changed some of our programs to be more COVID functioning,” Visser explains. “We see kids struggling with isolation and loneliness and mental health issues. We had two programs we created new curriculum for, and they are group-based programs with one to two mentors with 10 to 12 kids on a big Zoom call. We have (virtual) activities we do together. It was really positive, and the kids really enjoy it.”
While now allowing kids and their mentors to meet face-to-face again since Alberta enacted Phase 2 of the reopening, Big Brothers Big Sisters is still encouraging their mentors and kids to meet in a safe way. This means perhaps going for walks together in nearby parks instead of driving to do activities together or taking part in larger group gatherings.
“We do know some of these ‘Bigs’ are the only source for fun and interaction some of our kids have,” Visser says. “So as long as they are maintaining safety and being aware we can’t sit on our hands. We have to find a way to get along in society while maintaining best social practices to be safe, and (our mentors) are doing well at that.”
With school out and some sports leagues cancelled Big Brothers Big Sisters is also seeing a new type of COVID need emerging with socially isolated youth in the community, and is enacting programs to meet that need, says Visser.
“We are maybe seeing a whole new calibre of child coming into our program,” she confirms. “We have certain types of children we have been serving since the 1970s; maybe a single-parent home; maybe poverty is a consideration we have seen with our kids. But now we are seeing children who are really struggling with being isolated and not having support. Particularly that kid in that 10-14 age where they are not little, and don’t want to do crafts or things like that at home, and they are not a teenager yet so they can’t drive and don’t have that independence; or what independence they did have, they have lost. They also maybe don’t have a smartphone or access to communication. We are serving that need, for sure.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters is looking for more mentors to help, and is taking on more kids as well despite having its own recent financial challenges as an organization as major fundraising events have had to be cancelled this year such as their annual Golf for Kids’ Sake tournament.
Visser says 75 per cent of the organization’s funding comes from donations, and they have had to tighten their belts and employ fewer staff as funding sources have lessened.
“We have made changes to our expenses,” she explains. “So we are down in staffing a bit, but our capacity is still the same as what it was before. Staff are doing more and working harder.”
Despite this fact, Visser remains grateful for all the community support they continue to receive. While the on-the-ground golf tournament had to be cancelled over COVID concerns, Big Brothers Big Sisters hosted a virtual tournament instead.
“We ran a campaign for it, and it did generate funds,” Visser explains. “It brought in $60,000, which is amazing. We had budgeted originally for $100,000. So we are getting by, but we are definitely down in revenue significantly.”
She is also grateful to Charlton and Hill Ltd. for hosting an ongoing bottle drive/bottle drop-off for them which has generated much-needed funds in recent months.
Visser says the silver lining for her organization coming out of the COVID-19 shutdown is it has forced them to become more nimble and offer a larger array of “hybrid” virtual and face-to-face programs, which should allow them to expand their reach to help even more kids in the future.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lethbridge and District served 686 kids in 2019, and is on track to do the same in 2020 even with fewer financial resources.
Visser also knows the organization continues to have strong support in the community, which also bodes well for the future despite the current challenges they are experiencing.
“We need resources and financial support to continue to do what we do,” she says. “Like I said 75 per cent of our budget is fundraised, and our community has been so generous and supportive. It really took us aback when we saw so much money rolling in from Golf for Kids’ Sake — people still want to support us, and they still value the work we do.”
For more information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lethbridge and District or to donate to help their cause visit lethbridge.bigbrothersbigsisters.ca.
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter

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