We’re all familiar with the billboard image and mission of Big Brothers and Big Sisters: a man or woman offering care, time and attention to a lonely or overlooked boy or girl.
A chronic shortage of men to do person-to-person mentoring, however, is turning one face on the Bigs’ billboard a little fuzzy for some agencies. Fewer men than women volunteer to mentor children. Agencies are constantly searching for new methods to encourage men to join up.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State added a fresh angle last summer to its offerings for children through a program called Big Couples. Married couples may volunteer to mentor boys between ages 7 and 15.
Why boys only? Because, agency officials say, the waiting list of boys in need is long and it moves slowly, partly because of the shortage of men volunteers. Big Couples was conceived partly as a way for wives to leverage husbands into joining the Big Brother/Big Sister mission.
Big Couples has the potential to enhance the mentoring relationship, especially for the 75 percent of children on the agency’s service lists who live with a single parent or grandparents. “It is good to promote the example of couples working together,” said Heather Potter, project director at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State.
Nonetheless, a major motivation for offering the Big Couples option is to harness more men to the task. So far, it has not gotten any Big Couples to sign up. “It is harder to get males to mentor,” said Potter. This year, she said, 163 women and 61 men have inquired about volunteering with her agency. One hundred women and 32 men have been interviewed as potential volunteers.
Janice Pothier Pac, associate director of Serve Rhode Island, said a shortage of men in person-to-person volunteer service is true for many agencies. She said an annual study, “Volunteering in America” by the Corporation for National and Community Service, reports that, nationally, 21.7 percent of males and 26.9 percent of females volunteer.
In addition, Pothier Pac said, men and women may choose volunteering options “based on traditional social roles, with women caring for people and men doing environmental and physical hands-on tasks. Men may volunteer more in corporate settings or in one-time episodes.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State, founded in 1966 to serve girls, began to serve boys in 2010. The organization is distinct from the Big Brothers of Rhode Island, founded in 1952 to serve boys from fatherless homes. Executive Director Steve Kass said the essential element in recruitment is to “get the word out about what your agency does.”
Today, Kass said, “audiences are fragmented, and you have to hit them on many levels.” But he added that “recruitment is not difficult one-on-one,” especially when he tells men “stories about how these kids live and what big brothers have accomplished.”
“You have to get the word out and tell it over and over,” Kass said. “Then they get it.” He believes a sector of men who are ripe for Big Brothers volunteering is empty-nest dads.
Jessica Jones, a big sister with the Ocean State agency for about four years, said women may volunteer more to work with people because they literally see the need. “If something touches you directly, you are more likely to volunteer,” Jones said. “A lot of the human-services field is mostly women.” •