ORLEANS — Brian Burke and his wife are empty-nesters. But thanks to Brian’s Little Brother from Harwich, he’s got somebody to help him build a new birdhouse.
“I had him draw up some plans on a pad of paper,” Burke said with a chuckle. “The last one was about six feet tall and about four feet wide.”
Burke has been a Big Brother to nine-year-old Nicolai for almost a year now, and loves the experience.
“We have a good time together,” Burke said.
But for every Little Brother like Burke’s, there are many more boys between the ages of 7 and 12 who are looking for male mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod and the Islands. Through the month of March, the group is seeking to recruit 30 men willing to spend a few hours twice each month to make a big difference in the life of local boys.
The organization’s regional director, JR Mell, said there’s always a need for Big Sisters too, but on the Cape, the need for men is four times greater. In Chatham, Harwich and Orleans, there are now 21 active mentors, 18 of whom are women. In those three towns, there are now four boys in Chatham, Harwich and Orleans who are waiting to be paired with a mentor.
Most Bigs are surprised at the relatively small time commitment, just two or three meetings per month. The key is stability and predictability for the youngsters, Mell said. “We do ask for a one-year commitment,” both from the mentors, the children and their guardians. “But a lot of our matches last a lot longer than that,” he said. Children can join the program between ages 7 and 12, and once matched, can stay in the program until age 18. But plenty of Bigs and Littles remain friends long afterwards, Mell said.
Burke said one of his favorite activities is birding, which he shares with Nicolai.
“We hike all the favorite spots, like Fort Hill,” he said. “I look forward to it.” Nicolai is benefiting from having another positive male role model in his life. “He’s had his issues. He was bullied. We talk about it,” Burke said. But mostly, they just spend time together. And Nicolai isn’t the only one who benefits.
“The kid’s wicked smart,” Burke said with a laugh. He and his wife recently got a video streaming device for their TV, and Nicolai helped them set it up.
Some Littles, like Nicolai, come from single-parent homes, but others have two parents present, and still others are being raised by grandparents.
“The one thing across the board that all of our Littles have in common is they can benefit from having an additional positive role model in their life,” Mell said. Big Brothers Big Sisters measures outcomes for children who take part and observes changes starting about a year after participants are assigned to a Big. They show improved character and confidence, better school attendance and grades, “and also we find they’re having a better relationship with their parental figures and their peers,” he said. “We know that we have the most positive outcomes when a match lasts for a minimum of a year.”
Men who are interested in learning more about the program are encouraged to visit www.CapeBigs.org or call Mell at 508-771-5150. Some potential volunteers worry that they’re too old, or don’t fit the profile that the organization is seeking. In fact, of the more than 350 Bigs on the Cape and Islands now, more than half are 50 years of age or older. Retirees have the benefit of not needing to move away to follow job opportunities, “and they’ve also probably raised their own kids at that point, and understand what it is that kids could benefit from,” Mell said.
What would Mell say to a potential Big Brother who worries that he might not be right for the job?
“I’d say, you’re the person we’re looking for,” Mell said. “Our best volunteers are the ones who really think about it and say, I’m not sure I have anything to offer.” Little Brothers have pretty low expectations, he noted. “Our expectation is just about them being there, being there consistently and being a positive influence,” Mell said. He’s been a Big Brother to the same Little for five or six years, and the experience has changed his life – and inspired his current career.
Burke urged Lower Cape men to look into the program.
“Go through the interviewing process. Once you get matched up, it could be a really good thing for both of you,” he said. “You’re never going to know unless you try.”