You could argue that the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and organizations like it, has never been more important.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in financial and emotional hardship for millions of families. And the abrupt end to school time it caused in March has led some ‘little siblings’ – the organization’s term for youngsters who take part in its mentoring programs – to experience grief, just the type of thing the organization is in a position to help with.
Pairing a child in need with a positive, steady and supportive adult presence is a time-tested and proven model.
It’s also a critical component of St. Luke’s community health efforts, as the health system places an increasing emphasis on social determinants that drive health outcomes. For children, those may include traumatic experiences, which St. Luke’s and its partners hope to overcome by strengthening children’s resilience.
“Our families are already coming into this situation vulnerable, and this has been really stressful for our families and our kids,” said Emily Johnson, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Idaho.
“To have that consistency with their ‘big’ and then to have us stay in regular contact with the families, we knew it would be important, but I don’t think I realized how important it was going to be until we got knee-deep into this.”
St. Luke’s Health System has partnered with and provided Community Health Improvement Fund grants to Big Brothers Big Sisters for several years. The organization serves nearly 350 kids a year by matching them with volunteers, or ‘bigs,’ who act as role models.
Many children who take part have had adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs in the public health field. Potentially traumatic events that unfold during their upbringing, ACEs may include abuse, domestic violence, family substance use problems and/or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters staff has seen stressors from COVID-19 hit hard for many families and children.
“We talk about it as a staff. We are combating ACEs in real time,” Johnson said. “We are not going back to undo ACEs from the past; we are in it, trying to combat it as it happens. That’s powerful.”
The toxic stress from ACEs on young, developing minds and bodies can have long-lasting health effects. Of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States, at least five are connected with ACEs, according to the CDC.
“The data definitely show us that there is a dose-response relationship with increased adverse childhood experiences. We also know that it impacts long-term health outcomes,” said St. Luke’s Community Health Manager Jean Fitzgerald-Mutchie. “We also know that ACEs don’t have to be predictive of the rest of your life.”
There is, indeed, hope – and a path forward.
Research published in the JAMA Pediatrics medical journal in 2019 showed that positive childhood experiences can lead to decreased odds of depression or poor mental health in adulthood. Big Brothers Big Sisters puts that understanding into action.
“When kids have that mentor, that one consistent, trusted adult is the number one protective factor against adversity in these kids,” Fitzgerald-Mutchie said.
“Even if the world is falling around them, they have that one person they know they can count on and go to. The science shows that connection is intensely powerful.”
The organization’s staff has found ways to keep ‘bigs’ and ‘littles’ creatively connected while physically apart right now. From writing letters and playing tic-tac-toe over Zoom to knitting squares that will be stitched together for a ‘Big Brothers Big Sisters coronavirus quilt,’ the team and their volunteers continue to engage the children they serve.
“It’s been incredible to see what’s happened with our ‘bigs,’ our staff and our families,” Johnson said. “It’s just all these people supporting each other in any way they can.
“It’s been so inspiring.”
Daniel Mediate works in the St. Luke’s Community Engagement department.