RACINE — “More volunteers would mean helping more children,” Jeff McElroy told the packed room.
The supporter of the organization introduced Tracy Kelly, executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Athens, to a recent Meigs County Commissioner’s meeting. He praised the mentoring program as worthy of the area’s support.
McElroy, who coaches football in Meigs and is involved in other philanthropic efforts, said “a tremendous amount of good comes from this,” but that in covering several counties with limited resources, “there’s a lot of hustle in what they do.”
Kelly defined her goals in Meigs simply: Getting the word out.
“We’ve served Meigs for several years, but have never recruited the numbers (of mentors) we would like to see,” she said.
Big Brothers/Big Sisters is a non-profit founded in Cincinnati well over 100 years ago. Now a national organization, the Athens branch operates in Athens, Vinton, Washington and Meigs counties.
Speaking later to the Times-Sentinel, the Athens area executive director summarized BB/BS.
“We connect kids with people in the community, people who will be mentors, and have them spend four to six hours a month together doing healthy, emotionally supportive activities. These can be very simple things — the park, movies, assisting with homework, a bicycle ride.”
Kelly said southern Ohio is awash with children in need.
“In our four counties, we pair 300 kids a year who are ‘at-risk’ children. Eighty percent are below the federal poverty limit, and 12 percent have one or both parents incarcerated.”
She said there is a growing wait list in Meigs, which includes several candidates in Racine.
“Finding volunteers is much more challenging than finding applicants,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of children facing adversity in our service area.”
Poverty and home instability have scientifically documented negative effects on all aspects of life, including school performance and health.
For kids frequently moving between relatives and schools, Kelly argues having one constant can have an outsized effect.
“The impact we see from only a little time spent is dramatic. You wonder, how did that much really help? Just having someone to talk to can be enough,” she said.
Mentors are adults of all ages who have ties to the area, and BB/BS attempts to match within the community. Standard background checks and some training go into screening volunteers. The organization keeps in touch with all parties, ensuring compatibility following a match.
Some mentors, like Meigs native Katlyn Sauvage, already have a full plate. Headed into her second year of graduate school, she decided the low hourly obligation was well worth the effort.
“I was an only child and never got to experience having siblings,” she said. “When I discovered Meigs had a program, I was not sure so I went to the office to get more information. It is not too big of a commitment, and I made my decision once I saw the size of the wait list.”
Mentors run the full spectrum of life experience. BB/BS makes an effort to recruit retirees because of their personal stability and flexible scheduling.
Kelly said hesitation from some potential volunteers is misplaced, but that instead, “Everyone wants a friend. For example, a retiree may not be sure a kid will want to have them as a mentor — that is almost never true. Adults have more experience, more to draw on to advise in difficult situations. I’ve found retirees make some of the most successful role models.”
Kelly has further meetings planned with local leadership, and the Meigs Board of Commissioners formally recognized the organization for expanding to assist Meigs County children. She hopes the engagement efforts will translate.
“It’s very, very important that we increase the number of mentors. To someone even on the fence, please just call. I love to answer questions,” she said. ”There are not a lot of programs where four hours can make such a difference.”
To volunteer or suggest a child for mentorship, contact Kelly at 740-797-0037 or visi www.bbbsathens.org.