By: Anna Vangsness
February 1, 2018
For nearly 30 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been helping change the perspectives and lives of thousands of children around southern Minnesota.
The volunteer-supported mentoring network fosters relationships between adult volunteers (“Bigs”) and youths (“Littles”) ages 5 to 18 in communities across the country. BBBS first came to Steele County in 1987 and since then has expanded to include Dodge, Rice and Waseca counties, together known as BBBS of Southern Minnesota.
As Executive Director of the southern Minnesota chapter, Michelle Redman oversees the more than 590 Big and Little matches. She started at BBBS just under 10 years ago in fund development before moving on to her current role two and a half years ago.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters is a hand up, not a hand out,” Redman said. “We try to make children’s lives better by helping them through hard times. Children in our program come from all different walks of life. Some live with mom and dad, one parent, foster parents or grandma.”
Though each of the children in BBBS Southern Minnesota has a unique family, there is a consistency that flows from one to the next, intertwining all of the families.
“It’s that each parent or guardian wants their child to have an additional, positive role model in their life,” Redman said. “It’s wonderful to see how the child grows throughout the program because it gives them a chance to see a different pathway in life.”
Redman said that growing up in a family allows someone to only see what their family does and knows. Being with another positive adult role model opens their eyes to other possibilities in life.
“It offers a tremendous experience,” Redman said. “These children get to experience how different relationships work. It’s life-changing for them and it’s life-changing for the volunteers as well.”
After an in-depth interview with each volunteer, child and child’s family, a Big and Little are matched. BBBS asks for a one-year commitment from the adults, but Redman has yet to see a Big leave before the child’s time in the program is up.
“We don’t take the child that’s waiting the longest and match them with the next adult,” she said. “We wait to match the right kid with the right adult to make the perfect match, and we work hard for it. These are children and we don’t want their match to be someone who’s going to leave, because Big Brothers Big Sisters makes a profound change in their lives. When we do match our Bigs and Littles, we make an extended family. And they do; they become family with one another.”
When Redman says that the Bigs and Littles become family, she knows firsthand the relationship that’s built because she has been matched with her Little, Rosie, for three years.
“She’s 10 and adorable,” Redman said.
Every Wednesday, Redman joins Rosie for lunch at her school. The two talk, play a game (Uno is their favorite) and it’s a quick 40 minutes of touching base. Their lunch is in addition to the 50 activities a year that BBBS of Southern Minnesota organizes, offering each match four to five specially planned events to enjoy together per month.
“Sometimes we go to a Minnesota Gopher game with transportation, go to the archery range in Medford, play kickball, dodge ball and we just got done with a canvas painting party,” Redman said. “You name it, we have an activity. I told Rosie the other week that I was so happy to have been matched with her because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to experience these things and it’s so much fun to do it together.”
Since coming into Rosie’s life three years ago, Redman is happy to say that she is now an extension of her Little’s family, which is Rosie, her mom and sister.
“Rosie and I have our own Christmas tradition,” Redman said with a smile in her voice. “We make something to eat, watch movies, sit in the same place every year and we have a great time. She’s very special to me and she always puts a smile on my face.”
Before Redman joined BBBS, she admits she wasn’t aware of the gaps in the community that the organization could help fill.
“I was blind to that,” she said. “Now my eyes are so open to the need in our community and the need for our program. It’s not just a Twin Cities issue.”
Other Littles, like Rosie, are waiting to be matched with their Big and are eager to begin a mentor relationship that they will carry with them for the rest of their life.
“If you’re a parent or guardian thinking if this is the right thing for your child, what child couldn’t benefit from an additional role model,” Redman asks. “All children can. If you’re not a volunteer, think about it. I always say that it’s about changing a life, and sometimes the life they might change may be their own. It’s life-changing on both parts.”
An Evening for Kids’ Sake
BBBS of Southern Minnesota wouldn’t exist without the help of grants and fundraising. Its largest fundraiser of the year is set for March 10 at the Star Fire Event Center in Waseca. The 16th annual Evening for Kids’s Sake will feature dinner, a live and silent auction and a program honoring BBBS of Southern Minnesota Bigs of the Year. Tickets are $75. For more information on the event or to become a volunteer for BBBS of Southern Minnesota, visit bbbsofsouthernmn.org.
Anna Vangsness works in the healthcare communication field in Mankato and is a freelance writer. She resides in New Ulm with her husband.