In a small town in northern Alberta, kids are experiencing the value of mentoring. Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Lac La Biche, a satellite office of BGCBigs, has been working to better the lives of children and youth for many years. According to Kristen Shewchuck-White, the local program facilitator, the community of just over 2500 people is tight knit and there’s a lot of buy-in for mentoring programs.
In fact, this past March marked the community’s 13th annual Bowl For Kids Sake fundraiser. Thanks to the community’s support, it raised over $10,000! Those funds go directly towards providing programs for the kids in Lac La Biche and the surrounding area.
“Lac La Biche is a small community but we see a lot of multicultural peoples, and we have a high youth population,” Kristen shares. The community itself has three schools – an elementary, a junior high, and a high school – but the mentoring programs are extended to serve neighbouring communities as well: Plamondon, Caslan, and Kikino.
Currently, BBBS Lac La Biche has 43 in school mentoring matches.
“Aside from three amazing adult mentors, all of our volunteers are teenagers from the high school,” Kristen says. “In school mentoring has been our focus for the last couple years, and we’re really proud that we have 40 teens who are volunteering their time.”
Kristen’s other focus has been improving the quality of the matches. She shares that while their numbers haven’t grown, each of her Bigs and Littles are meeting consistently and developing meaningful relationships.
Part of her role includes making sure she’s at the school where the mentoring is taking place. “I think by being in the schools and having a presence at them, it makes a difference to the kids,” Kristen says. “They know I’m there to help them and offer them support if they need it. And they have their school liaisons too (teachers or other staff at the school who help run the mentoring program at their school). They are a huge part of why the programs are successful.”
The school liaisons work with the teachers to identify which children could benefit from a mentor. Most times, they’ll also provide input for matching consideration because they know both the mentee and the mentor. That’s one of the benefits to working in a small community.
The types of kids who are referred to get mentors are varied. Some of them have both parents, some are from a single parent home, others are dealing with grief. Lots of times, though, it’s a child telling their teacher that they want a mentor because their friend has one.
Kristen is also working to deepen the relationship between BBBS Lac La Biche and the Caslan and Kikino schools. She’s currently teaching the Grade 8 kids what it means to be a mentor and prepping them to become mentors when they are in high school the following year. Come September, they’ll be studying in Lac La Biche, and she wants to be a friendly face for them.
“Because those communities are even smaller than Lac La Biche, transitioning to a bigger high school where they don’t know anyone can be scary for them,” Kristen explains. “I want them to feel like they are part of something, so they feel like they belong.”
It also means more volunteers for the ever-growing list of kids waiting for a mentor.
At the junior high in Lac La Biche, Kristen has 4 students who are paired with elementary students. They’re not quite mentors yet, but she calls them “mentors in training” and hopes that when they move into the high school they’ll want to continue their relationship with their mentee.
The mentors get a lot out of their mentoring experience too. Sometimes as much, if not more, than their mentee. It’s a good opportunity for them to hone their social and leadership skills.
For example, Andrew* is a boy in Grade 8 and a mentor in training. Here’s what his mom had to say about his participation in the program:
I think being a Big brother has been just as beneficial for my son as it is for his Little. It gives him the chance to be a positive role model, a safe place to put himself out there and the chance to develop leadership skills. It is teaching him how to be a better person, how important it is to care about others, the value of being involved in his community and the gift of being able to make a difference. He is proud to be a teen mentor and wants to set a good example for his little… When I listen to my son talk about his involvement in this program, it makes me proud of the young man he is turning out to be. There are so many influences that shape our children into who they are going to be as an adult. I am thankful that my son has the opportunity to be involved in such an excellent organization and I know that it will help him develop into a great person.
Another good example are the two boys in Grade 5 who are matched with two girls in Grade 12. Both teenagers joke about doing Grade 12 over just to be able to spend another year with their mentees. They’ve spent a lot of time trying out different recipes together and all four of them love it. So, for a graduation gift to their mentors, the boys are going to put together a cook book with photos from their time together.
It’s easy to see how important these friendships are to the kids and to their sense of community.
Recently a challenge threatened to get in the way of those friendships: transportation.
The high school moved from the middle of Lac La Biche to a location about half an hour walk away. Suddenly, the teenagers who didn’t own a car or couldn’t drive couldn’t make it to their mentoring meetings without missing more than one class. They needed a bus.
So Kristen moved some budget items around, and with support from the local funders of BBBS Lac La Biche, especially Devon Energy, they were able to get a bus once a week to transport the kids.
“Those kids wouldn’t have been able to mentor if we couldn’t find transportation for them.
It’s paying off. At Bowl For Kids Sake in March, a group of bowlers from the high school showed up to play. “Not only are they giving back to their community by volunteering their time to mentor younger students,” Kristen says. “But they’re also learning what it means to give back in a broader way. By helping fundraise, these teens are making it possible for more students to have this opportunity.”
We would like to give a huge thank you to Devon Energy, Lac La Biche FCSS and Community Development, and Cenovus for providing the dollars and support necessary to run our programs in Lac La Biche and provide the best service possible to children and families who need it.
*not his real name