Irvin Westheimer is credited with creating the Big Brother/Little Brother concept in 1903 when he mentored and provided guardianship services to a deprived, fatherless boy and recruited some friends to do likewise. In 1910, Westheimer and friends officially formed the Big Brother Association of Cincinnati; in 1960 it expanded to provide for to girls in need. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America formed in 1977 and has grown to include 500 agencies in 50 states and across the world, providing one-to-one mentoring relationships between caring adults and children at risk.
Cincinnati has two organizations. One is based in Roselawn: Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association of Cincinnati, a Jewish agency providing services to members of the Cincinnati Jewish Community, as well as to non-Jewish families who might benefit from the agency's expertise. The other is in Mt. Auburn: Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati.
Both organizations match children in need of consistent friendship, guidance and attention with an adult role model in a one-to-one relationship over an extended period of time. The time commitment is approximately one contact a week for a period of at least one year. If you want to become a Big Bro or Big Sis, you go through three screening interviews, provide some personal references, and let the agency run a police records check on you. Kids and families are also carefully screened (age, family composition, parental involvement, social functioning, interests, and so on).
The agency works hard, I'm told, to screen and match Big/Little Brothers/Sisters for compatible interests, personalities, backgrounds and age. It doesn't matter if you're 18 or 80, married or single, a professional or a student, rich or poor. It's not supposed to cost a lot of money to be a Big Bro or Sis, just time and an interest in helping a child or teen-ager in need -- and the cost of any activities you do with your Little Bro/Sis. The agency can't fund your time together, but it does provide ongoing support and counseling as needed.
I have numerous friends who have been Big Brothers/ Sisters. Several friends said that, while support was available to them from the agency, they still felt overwhelmed sometimes with the responsibility involved in affecting their Little Bro's or Sis's lives. One friend said that, because he got really close to and involved with his Little Brother, it left him much more frustrated and discouraged when the child landed in and out of detention centers as he advanced through his teenage years. A pal of mine says her involvement with her Little Sister almost devastated her (the girl became pregnant at 16), but admits the Big Sister experience ultimately developed her as an adult and, later, as a mother.
My friend Tom says, "The experience really shook me, but I needed shaking," echoing the sentiment of mentoring being a part of self-development and enhancement. Each person I spoke with would consider being a Big Bro/Sis again at some point, feeling the experience was worthwhile, despite the challenges involved. I think getting involved is a good thing, generally speaking: Our city could benefit from folks putting out some brotherly and sisterly love where it makes a difference, with our city's children.
To become a Big Brother or Big Sister: Contact Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association of Cincinnati at 513-761-3200 in Roselawn (www.bigbrobigsis.org) or Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati at 421-4120 in Mt. Auburn (www.bbbsqc.com). If you want to offer financial support, you can participate in the BBBS Stock Rally 'Round the Kids Contest on Aug. 31 or a wine-tasting at Peterloon in Nov. 10.