Christina Yidiaris was always well aware of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, from television ads she’d seen for years, donations she made to the organization, to the purple clothes drop-off bins with the Big Brother Big Sister logo she frequently contributed to. As an adult who found herself comfortable with a steady routine, a 9-to-5 job and life experiences she believed would benefit others, Christina was ready to give even more of herself to help those in need. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State, Christina found her opportunity with the Big Mentor League, a volunteer program that pairs adult mentors with Rhode Island children. There she met her mentee Michelle Colomba and forged a bond that she believes changed both of their lives forever.
The Big Mentor League was originally created in 2010 as a collaborative effort between Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State, Big Brothers of RI, the RI Mentoring Partnership and the Urban League. This program is Rhode Island’s community response to address the complex needs of children with incarcerated parents. Nationwide, nearly 2 million children have a parent serving a prison sentence. Research shows that 70 percent of children with one or both parents in prison will end up there themselves – unless they have positive adult intervention. Furthermore, 63 percent of Rhode Island’s incarcerated parents have less than a high school diploma and 8 percent have less than a 9th grade education. This, combined with poor housing, high unemployment and poor health, may place children at the same risk factors and outcomes as their parents. The Big Mentor League’s goal is to improve the quality of life for these at-risk boys and girls and help them reach their full potential by providing them with a positive adult role model the child can emulate.
About two years ago, Christina contacted Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State to find out how to volunteer. She received an application and scheduled an interview, which allowed the program coordinators to get to know Christina and help facilitate the best match possible for her.
“The Big Mentor League coordinators interview both the Big Sister and Little Sister, and you both reach a mutual decision to approve the match. You both have to want it!” Christina said. After attending trainings, reading through manuals with helpful tips and activities and having her questions answered, Christina was ready to begin her sessions with her “Little Sister,” Michelle.
Michelle had been with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program since she was 11 years old. She had been matched with another mentor previously, but that relationship ended after about three years because of illness. Due to the enormous need for adult mentors, Michelle had to wait until high school to be paired with Christina.
Looking back on their first sessions, Christina said, “Through our first few meetings, we were both pretty reserved, maybe a little shy. Our relationship started with small chats with each other and expanded from there. We’ve always had a smooth relationship, and we’re now quite comfortable talking with each other.”
Michelle had a different take.
“We clicked right away. I like to talk a lot; she can be a little less talkative. She’s a lot more casual and conservative; I’m an outgoing, dye-your-hair type of person. But we both found we had a lot of interests in common, which made things easy,” she said.
Through their conversations, Christina and Michelle learned not only about their similarities but also their differences.
“We both love animals and we both have dogs which we love to walk. In many ways we are different. We like different types of music, we have different styles and sometimes have different attitudes,” Christina said.
Christina was apprehensive at first.
“I was nervous about what she would think of me because of those differences. I quickly found that those differences helped us learn from each other,” she said.
The pair has been meeting at least six to eight hours a month for the last year and a half and their relationship has grown.
“Some of the time we have events planned, other times we do things spur of the moment, like go to lunch or the park. Our relationship is really more of a friendship,” Michelle said.
They found that they could bounce ideas off each other, which works very well in setting goals.
“Our main goal was getting Michelle to graduate. I was always emphasizing education, the importance of school work, getting to school on time and getting things done,” Christina said. Having worked in the restaurant business for many years and from the bottom up, Christina knows the value of determination. “Michelle really isn’t too much of a ‘school person’ and may have run the risk of dropping out. I stressed the importance of school, and of finding a job with long-term potential,” Christina said.
Christina also provided a positive influence just by being herself. “She’s 25 years old, she has a great job, she’s independent, strong-willed, kind…she has the traits I want to have,” Michelle said of Christina.
With Michelle turning 18 and now graduating from high school, her time with the Big Mentor League is coming to a close. But both Sisters strongly agree that they will remain friends and continue to contact each other regularly.
With their formal sessions ending, Christina wants to continue mentoring through the program. Big Brothers Big Sisters staff has suggested that she may want to mentor a younger girl, with the hopes of creating an even longer-term relationship. Both Christina and Michelle discussed the idea, and they feel it would be a good opportunity as there are many children who need the care and attention of a mentor.
Those interested in becoming a mentor should contact Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State at 921-2434. For additional mentoring opportunities contact the RI Mentoring Partnership at 732-7700.
Tim Forsberg of the Rhode Island Mentoring Partnership reported this story.