Drive three hours north east of Edmonton, and you’ll find the City of Cold Lake. Over 15,000 Albertans call the rural retail hub home; many are there for the work in the nearby oil patch, for work in tourism or with the federal government, while others work on 4 Wing, one of Canada’s busiest fighter bases. It also happens to be the location of one of our satellite offices: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cold Lake.

Donna Benoit, program facilitator in Cold Lake, has been working to provide mentoring programs to the community’s kids for over three years. Working out of the Cold Lake Middle School, Donna recruits, trains, matches, and monitors volunteers while supporting kids and families, developing community partnerships, and raising funds.

“In Cold Lake, there’s quite a variety of families who could benefit from our programs,” Donna says. “We see kids from families who have escaped family violence, kids whose dads are working away for up to 28 days at a time, kids with parents in the military, and kids from single parent’s households. We also have a large population of aboriginal families living in this region so close to half of the kids we serve, and kids who are waiting to be served, are aboriginal.”

Since before Donna started working with us, we’ve had a shortage of volunteers in the Cold Lake area and an ever growing list of kids waiting for a Big Brother or Big Sister in the school or in the community. We wanted to find a way to encourage more adult males to get involved.

So, BBBS Cold Lake started a football program, hoping to grow adult male mentors. High school football players would come to the middle school once a week after school and teach the younger boys some basic football skills – throwing and catching a football – and run simple drills, all non-contact. At first the coach was going to let the teens alternate weeks so they didn’t have to commit to the full six week program. But we quickly realized that the teen mentors looked forward to coming, so Donna made sure they knew they could all come each week.

“It went really well,” Donna explains. “At the end of the program every single teen told me that it needed to be longer. So this year we’re going to double the amount of time and do 12 weeks!”

Plus, it was a fantastic program for the mentees too. One little guy has been on our waiting list for a while and he doesn’t speak a word to anyone and refused to participate in any of his classes. By creating this program, BBBS Cold Lake made it possible for this kid to get the support he needed. By the end of the program, the little guy was participating in every single second with a huge smile on his face.

The Teen In School Mentoring program is also off to a booming success.

“The elementary school we’re working with said they can accommodate 25 teen mentors this year,” Donna says. “So far we’ve had 32 apply and they are all amazing kids. Now we’re looking at moving them to another elementary school so they can still participate and more kids will have access to the homework and friendship that the program provides.”

In October 2015, we received funding from the Government of Alberta to expand our mentoring services. Because of that funding, we were able to increase Donna’s hours. Now, BBBS Cold Lake has more community-based matches than they’ve ever had, with one or two more volunteer applications coming in every couple of weeks. That means we are expecting to finish 2016 with almost 50 percent more children served this year in Cold Lake alone!

But unfortunately, not everything is booming. As a community that is very dependent on the oil field work, the drop in oil has hit Cold Lake hard. Bowl For Kids Sake, BBBS Cold Lake’s main fundraiser, made less than half of our goal. But Donna is hopeful that things will turn around.

The funding we get from groups like Lakeland United Way, Alberta Human Services, and Cenovus, and from our donors doesn’t just go to matching kids with mentors. It also provides the little extras like craft supplies for the in school mentors to work on with their Littles, and a pizza party to celebrate the end of the football program. It may seem like a small thing but it is actually a big expense that can have a big impact.

“We got the pizza from Moe’s, a town favourite and a company that has been in Cold Lake for over 30 years,” Donna says. “Some of the kids didn’t even know what Moe’s was, so it was a really exciting way for us to end the program.”

Overall, Cold Lake has shown tremendous support for the mentoring programs. In February, thanks to a generous donation of their shop and time, stylists at Crew Haus Barber & Stylists were able to provide free haircuts, mini manicures, and chair massages for our volunteers and a couple of our families. Then before school started, Crew Haus provided complimentary haircuts for 23 Littles so they could feel confident going back to school.
Right now, Donna is looking ahead to the next six months.

“I’d like to begin having a monthly activity for the matches and kids waiting to be matched,” Donna says. “I’ve also started holding monthly ‘coffee house’ meetings with Bigs, which facilitates conversation between my group of volunteers so I can provide some coaching and they can share ideas and challenges with each other. We’re really trying to build on that sense of community.”

We would like to give a huge thank you to United Way Lakeland, Alberta Human Services, and Cenovus for providing the dollars and support necessary to help grow our programs in Cold Lake and provide the best service possible to children and families who need it.

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