I recently sat down with Amy Kuchta, the Chief Executive Officer at Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), to learn more about the work the organization is doing in Allegan County. Amy has worked in youth development since 1992 and began working at Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2005 as a Match Support Specialist. Later, Amy became Director of Mentoring Programs before becoming the CEO in 2013. Before BBBS, Amy worked in child welfare and often saw the reactive side to youth development and trauma. When I asked her why she loves BBBS, she replied, “I’m passionate about the matches and seeing the relationships being built. It is nice to be on the proactive side of youth development.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters first set foot in Allegan County in 1999 with a school-based program at Plainwell Community Schools. The organization now provides programming in three school districts in the county and uses the school-based model it began in Plainwell 17 years ago for all of its school-based programming across the 5 counties it serves (Allegan, Kalamazoo, Barry, Calhoun, and Van Buren).
In Allegan, the organization’s biggest program is one-to-one school-based mentoring services, either during or after school. What’s powerful about the school-based approach is a majority of the Bigs are high school students, some of which were Littles during elementary school. This approach allows the organization to measure impact in youth development not just in the Littles but in the Bigs as well. High School Bigs are developing “soft skills,” responsibility and leadership skills necessary for adulthood. A Youth Experiences Survey (YES 2.0) completed in 2015 by BBBS High School Bigs indicated that over 80% of Bigs learned about setting priorities, the challenges of being a leader and improved problem solving.
Last fall, Alivia Conn a high school student and Big at Plainwell High School wrote an article in the school’s student-run newspaper, The Trojan Torch. She praised the program stating, “Not only was I able to help [my Little], but [he] helped me as well. He made me realize how big of an impact you can have on a child’s life, just by spending an hour a week with them.”
The biggest BBBS program in Allegan is at Plainwell Community Schools. BBBS operates in every elementary as well as the middle and high schools in the school district. In addition, programming is offered in Otsego Public Schools and in Martin Public Schools. In Otsego, middle school students are matched with adults while in Martin, Brandon Elementary students are matched with high school students. In 2015, the organization served 142 Littles in Allegan County, 139 of which participated in the school-based program.
Every year the organization measures outcomes with its Littles. Last year, 94% of the 139 Littles in school-based programming reported an increased or maintained level of social acceptance among their peers. Social acceptance among peers is linked to higher grades and graduation rates. Other outcomes the organization measures are scholastic competence, educational expectations, grades, risky behaviors, parental trust, and whether the child has a special adult in his/her life. Special adult was the highest ranked outcome at 95%. Having a special adult in a child’s life who is not a parent is associated with improved school attendance, more positive attitudes towards school and parental trust all of which are linked to improved grades and increased school attendance.
To ensure matches are successful and programming is run smoothly throughout the county, BBBS has a staff member who spends 85% of her time in Allegan County. The Match Support Specialist is at each site every month to make sure Big/Little matches are going okay and to offer support to the High School Bigs in order to ensure their success as a mentor.
Big Brothers Big Sisters has built a relationship with ACUW by receiving funding as well as using ACUW as a network for Allegan County resources. Through a network of information sharing, BBBS is able to pass on information regarding programs and events happening in the community that it’s Littles and their families can benefit from.
To learn more about BBBS as well as support the agency, BBBS invites Allegan residents to attend its Bowl for Kids’ Sake fundraising event on February 27 at Snowden’s Sunset Lanes in Allegan. The event will have 2 shifts (12:30pm and 3pm). Each bowler raises a minimum of $60 and participates on a five person team. Participants ask for donations prior to the event. “It’s a party celebrating the money participants have raised,” Amy said regarding the event. BBBS has set a goal of raising $5,700 from the event and all money raised goes directly to Allegan County programming. The organization welcomes the community to come out and observe the festivities and learn more about the organization, even if they aren’t participating. Pre-registration is required to participate in Bowl for Kids’ Sake; you can register at www.bbbsmi.org/allegan or by calling 269-382-6800.
Big Brother Tyler Nobel and Little Brother Devin Davis. Tyler is a senior at Plainwell High School and Devin is in 4th grade at Starr Elementary. This is the second year that they’ve been matched as Big/Little.