Big Brothers and Sisters help kids thrive

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Carol Sorgen

Debra Matthews had a very personal reason for becoming a Big Sister three years ago. When Matthews’ own niece was 13, she was “unbelievably shy,” and also going through a difficult family situation.

Matthews took in her niece, but thought the youngster needed some extra encouragement. So she arranged for the young girl to have a Big Sister through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization. Her niece is now an outgoing, independent, self-sufficient adult — in short, everything Matthews hoped she would be.

“I volunteer as a Big Sister because they did so well with my niece,” said the 50-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident, who works as an assistant payroll manager for Legg Mason.

The history of Big Brothers Big Sisters dates to 1904 when Ernest Coulter, a New York City court clerk, established Big Brothers to match caring adults with young people who were getting into trouble.

In Maryland, the movement began with the Jewish Big Brothers League in 1919. In 1952, the Big Brothers of Baltimore agency was formed, merging in 1974 with the local Big Sisters-Little Sisters group.

Today, the official name of the organization is Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Maryland Mentoring Partnership, a result of bringing together the two largest, most experienced mentoring organizations in Maryland: Big Brothers Big Sisters, with its history of providing direct service mentoring support, and the Maryland Mentoring Partnership, a provider of training and technical assistance.

The organization is headquartered in Baltimore and serves more than 2,500 children in the region.

Working one-on-one

Matthews volunteered as a Big Sister through her workplace, though individuals can volunteer on their own as well.

She initially thought she would be paired with a young girl, but there were more boys needing a mentor than there were male volunteers, so with the approval of the boy’s mother, Matthews became a Big Sister to a boy who was then 11 years old.

Every Monday she spends her lunch hour with the boy at his school, where they share lunch, play games, review homework and make plans for future activities.

Once Matthews receives permission from both Big Brothers Big Sisters and the boy’s mother, she and her “little” have a list of activities they want to do together outside of school, from paintball games to bowling, movies and bike riding.

Many of the children needing mentors, including the boy Matthews has been paired with, come from single-parent and/or low-income homes, and may need that extra bit of attention to make a difference in how they turn out.

Matthews’ “little,” for example, was said to have difficulty managing anger, and his single mother, coping with her other children as well, thought he needed another adult influence in his life. Matthews hopes her calm demeanor has had a positive effect on the boy. “He’s a lot of fun to be around,” she said.

Matthews, the mother of a 19-year-old daughter herself, enjoys spending time with a young teenager. And she likes the feeling of helping someone who needs help. “I think he gets a kick out of it, too,” she said.

She was especially gratified recently when the youngster was having trouble with his math homework, and because of her own math skills, she was able to help him figure it out. When he went to school and had his teacher approve the homework, they both felt a sense of accomplishment.

Volunteers for Big Brothers and Big Sisters have to pass a background check before they are accepted and trained. The organization offers ongoing training for mentors to teach them about issues such as gang violence, life as a teenager today, and more.

Males especially needed

For Matthews, being a Big Sister has been a way to help another young child as someone else had helped her niece. She encourages others to get involved too, especially African American males. “A lot of the kids needing mentors are African American boys and they need a strong male presence,” she said.

According to Paula Bragg, director of marketing and communications, there are thousands of youth still in need of mentors.

“Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Maryland Mentoring Partnership are uniquely positioned to provide these children with the mentoring relationships and comprehensive support they need to succeed,” said Bragg.

Learn how you can positively impact a child’s life. To donate or volunteer, visit  or call (410) 243-4000.