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Youth mentors help younger kids grow

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MISSION VALLEY — Big Brothers Big Sisters, a nonprofit organization and presence on the Flathead Indian Reservation for the past 37 years, disaffiliated from BBBS in October of last year. Now known as Friends Forever Mentoring, executive director Julia Williams says that while the name might have changed, the priorities have not. 

“I’ve been with Big Brothers Big Sisters for more than six years, and the board and I have been discussing disaffiliating (with BBBS) for probably two years before that,” Williams said. “A big part of it was the money. About 10 percent of our annual budget was going to Montana affiliation dues, and this year they were making it mandatory that we all buy their software and we had to pay for it annually. 

“(BBBS) is kind of a cookie-cutter program and I think BBBS was really designed for inner-city, urban-rural environments. We’re not that at all. We’re on a reservation, and yes we have some of the same at-risk factors, but it’s different because it’s a reservation.”

In a nutshell, Williams said she and the organization wanted the freedom to handle problems the BBBS system wasn’t set up to handle and “make changes to our program to better serve our kids, our youth, our community and our families. It wasn’t really that way before.”

The nonprofit organization Big Brothers Big Sisters has seen many changes since its creation in 1904, but the one constant seems to be the guidance and help afforded to those under their charge. 

A 1995 study compared young students in the BBBS program with those outside of it in similar socio-economic environments. The study concluded that these students were 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 52 percent less likely to skip school, 37 percent less likely to skip a class, 33 percent less likely to hit someone and 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol. 

Friends Forever Mentoring keeps their own statistics, and the power of a positive role-model to change a child’s life is palpable. 

According to educators in Ronan, Pablo, Arlee and Hot Springs school districts, the students enrolled in FFM saw a 96 percent improvement in self-confidence, a 93 percent improved ability to express feelings, and 93 percent improved sense of future since starting with the program. In fact, students improved in every category surveyed, including relationship health with family, peers and adults and improved academic performance. 

“It’s very rewarding,” Williams said. “It’s rewarding in the sense that you know you’re making a difference in the community, and it’s not so much me, it’s all these ‘bigs’ in the pictures.” 

At this, Williams gestured to a poster board filled with hundreds of pictures of smiling “bigs” and “littles.”

“They’re the ones doing all the work,” she continued. “They’re the ones that are building those relationships — building those bonds. It’s about making our community stronger.”

Sabrina Schreiner, a foreign-exchange student from Vienna, Austria, and student at Ronan High School is one of the “bigs” Williams spoke of. 

“I have a lot of programs, so I thought it would be good to have a little time to play,” Schreiner said of her decision to become a mentor while in America. “I’ve enjoyed it so far; I have a really cute ‘little.’”

Schreiner said they do things like hang out, play boardgames or go outside and play soccer when the two are together. She said she hopes she’s making a difference, and will miss her “little” when she has to return to Germany in a few months. 

“I want to stay in contact,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll be pen pals. My favorite memory was when we were playing a board game. I don’t know what she called it, but she made the game herself and we played it. It was pretty cute.”

Another big, Ronan High School senior Aidan Reichman, said he was a “little” when he was in fifth grade. He said the relationship helped him, so when he got older he decided to give back. 

“Eventually, I started thinking about philosophy and what we’re supposed to be doing here, so I thought that the best thing I could do would be to give hope to a small child and make the world a better place,” Reichman said. “I hope I’m becoming a positive role model. I try to play-down swearing and be nice to people when he’s around; don’t try to cheat others, stuff like that.”

In order to say thank you to the hundreds of supporters around the Mission and Jocko Valleys and help raise funds for the nonprofit, Williams and FFM put on a bowling fundraiser last week at Lucky Strike Lanes in Ronan. All proceeds from the event went to FFM. 

“Tonight is just kind of the thank-you for folks who’ve raised money. So far, we’ve gotten about $1,900 in business sponsorships,” Williams said. “This is really just the thank-you. 

“Again, we know it’s all about relationships, so the relationships that I have or our whole organization has with not just the ‘littles,’ but the ‘bigs,’ you never know. That relationship where I see them once a week could be the relationship that keeps them in school.”

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