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Letting the "Littles" thrive

4-H/Big Brothers Big Sisters seeks volunteers in Solon and NL
Tyson Wirth, a school-based mentoring specialist, conducts a 4-H/Big Brothers Big Sisters session activity Wednesday, Oct. 24, at North Central Junior High in North Liberty. The club provides a mentoring outlet for adults and youth in the community through weekly hands-on activities, and is in need of volunteers at both North Central and Solon Middle School. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– Blasting bottle rockets outside, making ice cream in a bag and roasting marshmallows over a campfire may sound like simple fun and games, but in the 4-H/Big Brother Big Sisters (BBBS) after-school club, they serve as a powerful vessel for bonding and personal development.
Tyson Wirth, BBBS school-based mentoring specialist, and Amey Kollar, 4-H coordinator, facilitate the weekly program for youth to develop life skills with fun, hands-on activities specially focused on leadership, conflict resolution, goal setting, citizenship, problem solving and mindfulness. Adult volunteers, known as “Bigs,” mentor the youth, known as “Littles,” participating together in art, cooking, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-based projects, healthy living, service, team building and field trips and in the process develop meaningful relationships. Club facilitators work closely with students to match them with a volunteer mentor– their Big Brother or Sister– and support them in making a positive impact on each other.
Wirth and Kollar facilitate two branches of the club in North Johnson County: the Noble Knights BBBS club of North Central Junior High, in North Liberty meets Wednesdays from 4 to 5:30 p.m. from September through May. Now in its first year, the Spartan Life BBBS club of Solon Middle School meets Thursdays from 1:51 to 3:21 p.m. from September through May.
Each session begins with a snack as kids unwind with friends, before having an “ice breaker” and a rotating, hands-on activity that allows kids to problem solve, build character and express themselves. Every year, the club picks a service project to participate in and takes three field trips, traditionally capping it off with a trip to Kollar’s parents’ house in North Liberty for fishing and a campfire cookout.
Kollar said this semester has brought one of the most boisterous groups of kids. During the Oct. 24 session at North Central, a busy art room was filled with laughter and conversion as the Bigs and Littles partook in various art projects. Throughout the weekly interactions, Wirth takes note of chemistry between the youth and mentors and helps assign them to one another. During art day, he facilitated four Big/Little matches.
A new resident of North Liberty, Brittany Robinson recently joined the program as a mentor. While she has yet to be matched with a Little Brother or Sister, Robinson has found working with them a pleasant surprise.
“It’s been a lot more fun than I thought. I didn’t really know what to expect going in,” she confessed. “I haven’t hung out with a lot of kids in a while, but it’s actually been a blast– a lot of energy. People really seem get along and have a good time, and there’s always something different.”

Making an impact

“I think middle school years are the hardest years, so to me when the kids come in, it’s trying to make it as fun and welcoming and a place for them to belong,” Kollar explained. “But while they’re doing activities, that’s where the relationships are happening. It’s just them having those conversations; you might not be picking up on it, but they’re over there talking.” 
Kids whose family member battled cancer, had a parent pass away or come from a low-income home are among those who’ve found solace in BBBS, Kollar said.
“I think it’s great because they’re coming in and they’re having fun, but they’re working through all of those challenges right here, while they’re painting,” she noted.
For many students, BBBS provides a powerful social outlet, and Wirth is continually surprised by youth who defy teenage stereotypes through their strong enthusiasm for the club. He cited a girl who developed confidence through a pivotal experience in the group.
“She was not very comfortable socially, and a good chunk of the time she would even spend under the tables, choosing not to participate in the activities,” he said. But a turning point came the day the group took a field trip to the North Liberty Community Center for swimming.
“She had such a good time, she ended up actually going onto the swim team the next year and doing something socially that she definitely wouldn’t have been comfortable with previously.”
Wirth also recalled an example of a youth commenting on the impact a Big Brother named Matthew made on his Little Brother, Perseus, who was absent at the time.
“’Perseus talks about you all the time; it’s really like you’re his best friend,’ and you could see his face light up,” Wirth recalled. “It’s only an hour and a half a week, but over time it adds up to really be impactful.”
Wirth said such thriving Big/Little partnerships, with parental approval, can transition into a community-based match, following the student’s graduation from middle school and aging out of the club.
“That’s really cool and fun to see that impact where they’ve got such a strong foundation already, and now they can go and really have even more one-on-one time together,” Wirth marveled.

Program background and success

Initiated as a way to reach at-risk youth, the BBBS program is entirely grant funded through the Juvenile Justice Youth Development Committee. It began as an academic-based program to provide students extra homework help. Kids were initially referred, sometimes unwillingly, from faculty or parents. Kollar said the first year was challenging and had its share of discipline issues.
The following year, they introduced more hands-on activities and began recruiting intrigued students during lunch hour. Jennifer McGowan, student and family advocate at North Central, also plays a critical role. “She will help encourage certain kids that she thinks would be a good fit for the club, because maybe there’s something going on that can be a challenge, or they just don’t have another aspect where there’s a sense of belonging with the school outside of classes,” Wirth explained.
Kollar was asked by the Johnson County Extension to lead the program, and now in her fourth year, takes great comfort in her decision. “It’s my favorite part of my job,” she noted. The program’s facilitators have gone on to win an Excellence in Education award in the partnership category from Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.
The BBBS program is managed by the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach office in Johnson County, which employs both Wirth and Kollar. “We both owe a lot to Iowa State University Extension Outreach, because otherwise we can’t reach as many kids as we do,” cited Wirth, now in his third year running the program.

Becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister

The two BBBS clubs provide for up to 15 youth and 15 mentors each. To reach that number, they need seven more mentors at North Central and nine more in Solon.
Mentors are asked to commit 18 months from the time they meet a kid, as research shows a sustained match leads to greater long-term benefits. Kids participate on a year-to-year basis, usually returning if they haven’t aged out of club.
While the program utilizes group mentoring in the absence of a full roster of mentors, Wirth says the goal is to have an equal ration of mentors and youth.
“We want to get everybody that one-on-one that’s really maximizing the positive impact, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “We need help.”
Those interested in joining go through an application process including a written application, in-person interview, orientation, background check and online training. For Wirth, the reasons to join BBBS are self-evident.
“It’s great kids, man! And they just want a friend and they want somebody to connect with, and it’s fun!,” he remarked. Wirth described the program as a meaningful checkout from “adulting” in the name of service to others. “It’s the highlight of my week, because you get to go spend regular time with the same people, growing a connection… learning really valuable life skills and having fun doing it.”
Those interested in becoming a volunteer with BBBS can contact Tyson Wirth at 319-337-2145 ext. 143, by email at tyson@bbbsjc.org or visit www.bbbsjc.org.