“She was always like, the beacon of light that helped me get through sometimes. She’s just really kind, and she’s changed my life in so many ways,” said Galloway. “I don’t think I would’ve made it without her.”
Littles and bigs
Big Brothers Big Sisters is the oldest organized mentoring program in the United States, founded in New York City in 1904 by juvenile court clerk Ernest Coulter, who decided that many of the defendants he saw each day would benefit from some additional adult supervision. In just 12 years, his volunteer organization had a presence in 96 cities.
A similar New York City organization for girls also sprang up, and the two became formal siblings in 1977 when their merger created Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
“It’s well over hundred years old and it’s been in Haywood County since about 1982,” said Martha Barksdale, Haywood County program coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina.
Headquartered in Asheville, BBBS’ Western North Carolina division encompasses 10 counties and includes branch offices in Asheville, Cashiers, Highlands, Morganton, Robbinsville and Tryon as well as in Cherokee, Graham, Haywood and Henderson counties.
It’s mission is simple — to transform children’s lives through mentoring and supportive services. That involves what BBBS calls “bigs” and “littles.”
“Most of the littles are in a single-parent home,” said Barksdale of the children who end up paired with a big. “They could have an incarcerated parent. That’s not always the case [but] is sometimes the case. There’s a growing number of kids who live with their grandparents. I have kids that live with their aunt, so there’s no parent involved with them. The parents are gone, who knows where they are. So they are facing some adversity.”
Although BBBS does offer a site-based program where mentors as young as 16 go into elementary schools to help the littlest of littles with schoolwork, the organization is best known for its community-based adult mentorship program.
Potential bigs undergo a background check and are paired with littles after finishing some training about boundaries and guidelines — what Barksdale called the “do’s” and “don’t’s” — as well as completing some specialized instruction.
“One thing we go over is poverty,” she said. “Not all the kids, but some of them are in the lower income. It’s to educate the volunteer in bridging that gap. This may not be what they grew up with, where their background is, but this is reality in Haywood County.”
Same-sex pairings are most desirable; married couples and adult males can only be matched with littles who are males, but single women best matched with female littles can also be matched with boys, although it’s not ideal because often, Barksdale said, that boy needs a male role model.
“I always tell parents of children, or guardians, that I wouldn’t match their child with someone I wouldn’t match my own child with,” she said. “I feel very confident and comfortable once we approve a volunteer. We focus on the safety of the child.”
Maintaining communication between the bigs, the littles and their parents or guardians is probably the biggest part of Barksdale’s responsibilities.
“I don’t just make a match and let it go,” she said. “I follow-up and make sure the child feels safe. I check on activity.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough bigs right now for every little who wants one.
“We are dependent on adult volunteers,’ said Barksdale. “That is our biggest need. I’ve a stack of kids on our waiting list.”
That list currently includes nine boys, four girls, and a pronounced need in Bethel and Canton.
Crammed in a tiny office across the street from the historic Haywood Hospital, Barksdale maintains those matches — and the growing list of unmatched — on a surprisingly meager budget.
“We’re lucky if we fundraise about $22,000 [a year],” she said. “It’s not very much money. Our biggest fundraiser is Bowl for Kids Sake. I think last year our goal was $21,000 or $22,000 and we did not reach that goal. We had to add a second fundraiser, which is a cornhole tournament coming up Sept. 8 at BearWaters brewing.”
SEE ALSO: One-way ticket to kid world
Barksdale does see some modest grants come through, including a recent $3,400 from the Fund for Haywood County, and she also gets support from an advisory board, chaired for the last year or so by Ann Geers.
A psychologist by training originally from St. Louis who worked with deaf children for a number of years and also served as a professor at Washington University until settling in Haywood County 17 years ago, Geers has been associated with BBBS for eight years now.
“It is a board comprised of community leaders who are interested in this particular program,” she said. “We try to raise funds for the program. That’s our biggest thing.”
Geers is also a big, one of 32 active pairings in Haywood County.
“First and foremost I’ve never had a girl,” she laughed. “I’ve only had boys and I only have male grandchildren, so I have a little girl, in a way, you know? She and I are very close.”
The girl she’s talking about is that future marine biologist, Megan Galloway.
Galloway lives with her dad and has a relationship with her mom as well, but took to Geers almost immediately.
“I had a counselor in fourth grade and she told me that I would benefit from this program,” Galloway said. “A couple weeks later they were like, ‘Well, we found this woman and she’s interested in horses. You like horses so we’ll have you guys talk and see if you get along.’ And that’s how I met Ann.”
Bigs and littles (below) with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Haywood County gather for a photo at the 2017 Christmas party.
Since then, at least twice a month for almost eight years, they’ve engaged in a wide variety of activities both memorable and mundane.
“I’ve been on trips with her to St. Louis to see her family, and I’ve spent a lot of time with them,” said Galloway. “She’s one of the biggest impacts in my life as far as how I’ve grown up. Ann’s really been a big role model to me.”
Barksdale, herself a big, said that bigs open doors for littles that the littles didn’t even know were closed.
“Most of the kids tell us that just about everything they do with their big is the first time,” said Barksdale, who took her little to her first circus, where she saw her first elephant. “She was born and raised in Haywood County, and had never been on the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
Time shared weaving the fabric of day-to-day life is just as important, per Galloway, who recounted a recent school-shopping expedition with Geers.
“I guess the trips are some of the most memorable things we’ve done, but there have been times I’ve just spent the night over at her house, and just spent time with her,” said Galloway. “It just always meant a lot to me.”
Lately, the two have been busy working on college applications.
“If there’s anything I’ve done for her,” said Geers, “it is to sort of give her a vision that, yeah, women should get an education, they should get the best education they can, and they should plan to be self-sufficient.”
That’s a good lesson for the boys, too, according to Barksdale, who said she knew of one who after four or five years of successful mentorship became the first high school graduate in his family.
“I’m talking mom, dad, brother, sisters, aunts, uncles,” she said. “He actually went on to Haywood Community College. I feel like that was directly due to the encouragement.”
For her part, Galloway seems to have learned that, and more.
“I’ve learned a lot of compassion. She shows me a lot of kindness and how I should be helpful to other people,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from her over the course of the seven years, just how to be a decent person.”
The relationship isn’t one-sided, by any means; Barksdale said that a misconception among some hesitant to volunteer is that it will become just another dreaded chore. Geers insists that’s far from the case.
“My grandkids don’t live here, and I love kids. This gave me an opportunity to have a child to mentor close by. It just sounded like a wonderful opportunity and has been a whole lot of fun,” she said. “I thought it was me doing an altruistic thing for a kid but it turned out I probably got about as much out of it as she did.”
Another misconception — among both bigs and the parents or guardians of littles — is that the big is expected to replace a parent. They’re not.
“They’re supposed to be there for us to talk to. They’re basically just a really close friend. I always call her ‘my family friend,’ or just ‘my friend,’” Galloway said. “She’s just always been there to lend a helping hand. I think this program has helped change two lives.”
Support Big Brothers Big Sisters of Haywood County
• Cornhole Tournament
• Saturday, Sept. 8
• BearWaters Brewing, Canton
• Registration begins at 11 a.m., tournament starts at noon.
• First place prize of $300, $200 for second place and $100 for third place
• Free Food, 50/50 raffle, free T-shirts for participants
Become a ‘big’
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina is always looking for adult volunteers to serve as a “bigs.” To make a difference in the life of a Western North Carolina child, contact one of these 10 branch locations today.
• 828.356.2148 (office), 828.273.3601 (cell)
• 828.702.5465 (cell), 828.693.8153 (office)
• 828.859.9230 (office), 828.859.5364 (fax)