Community & Current Events

Share a little magic

By: Susan McClelland

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Share a little magic

By: Susan McClelland

Looking for a meaningful relationship? So are 10,000 children. Click on and volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Some kids, even the bright and feisty ones, need a helping hand when the odds are stacked against them. Having a mentor can make growing up just a little easier.

Giving guidance
It started out like any other pickup game of ball hockey in the underground parking garage of 10-year-old Dwight Drummond's apartment building. In the midst of play, says Dwight, now 35, the game experienced an unwelcome interruption. "This guy runs right through our game, followed by another guy firing a gun," he says. "Us kids were caught in the middle." Luckily, no one was injured.

Though Dwight had heard of other shootings in his neighbourhood, he never expected that he would be caught in a crossfire. He speculates that the shooting incident was likely over a drug deal, an all-too-common occurrence in the area around Jane Street and Finch Avenue, considered one of Toronto's roughest low-income public housing communities.

Dwight managed to escape the obstacles children from Jane and Finch face growing up, largely because he had a mentor - Lennox Holdford. Today Dwight is a popular Toronto television crime reporter and news anchor, and though he talks matter-of-factly about that shooting incident, he speaks with emotion about his mentor.

Lennox, 41, who lived in the same neighbourhood as Dwight, recognized even as a teenager that kids could thrive if they were given options - something some adults didn't understand. "I was told by my Grade 9 teacher that I would never graduate high school," he says. "I did, but I always felt I had to be twice as good to be considered equal to someone who lived outside the projects. I felt a duty to help those coming up behind me." This prompted him in 1977 to cofound the Firgrove United Sports and Culture Club, which offered children and youth after-hours programs at the on-site recreation centre and school. Two years later Lennox developed a mentoring program, in which young men and women became mentors to area teenagers.

From the beginning, Dwight and Lennox shared a special bond. Both had immigrated to Canada from the West Indies when they were young boys, grew up with several sisters and no brothers and had mothers who were single parents. Lennox, who is from Trinidad, became the positive male role model the Jamaican-born Dwight desperately needed. "My mom gave me $1 a week for allowance," says Dwight. "But the drug dealers on the corner would give kids $20 to pick up something at the store and tell them to keep the change. I needed a male figure in my life to tell me that the latter path, while appealing financially, led nowhere."

Among other things, Dwight credits Lennox with teaching him about his Jamaican background and educating him about black leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Angela Davis and Marcus Garvey. Lennox organized buses to take kids from the projects to hear speakers; he would sit and tell them the history of their people. This knowledge, says Dwight, was invaluable in the development of his self-esteem and the awareness that he, too, could make a difference in the world. "I became a journalist because I hated how my neighbourhood was covered," he says. "The stories were always negative, and I wanted to report on the positive things that were going on, like the work Lennox and others were doing."

Dwight and Lennox both left Jane and Finch years ago but neither has forgotten his roots. Dwight often returns to the area to talk with the kids. And Lennox, an outreach worker for homeless youth, still mentors others at the Firgrove United Sports and Culture Club. "People tend to move on from the neighbourhoods where they grew up and not look back," says Lennox. "That is wrong. Every community needs people to return and help guide the young."

Looking for a meaningful relationship? So are 10,000 children. Click on and volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Sharing life experiences
Keesha Dorosz loves her life. For the past three years, the up-and-coming 27-year-old has been director of sales for the retail division of Hospitality Careers Online in Vancouver. She owns a condominium in Port Coquitlam B.C., with her longtime partner, Philip. And Keesha's résumé brims with accomplishments, including having been the president of her high school student council in London, Ont., and a representative on the administrative council at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., from which she received a bachelor of arts degree in business communications.

Keesha's life hasn't been all charm and successes. Until she was 10, she lived in a dysfunctional household with an alcoholic parent; after that she lived with a single parent, and the family had little money. She failed Grade 10 math three times and was ready to quit school. She didn't, and she credits much of her success to Trish Barbato, her big sister through Big Sisters of London. Trish knew that Keesha had problems, but that she was also smart, capable and charming, and Trish wanted to help her turn her life around.

Keesha, who did well in subjects other than math and science, also was confident enough in high school to consider running for student council secretary; Trish, who recognized Keesha's leadership skills, pushed her harder and convinced her to run for president. "And when I thought I couldn't attend university," says Keesha, "she helped me apply for loans and choose the right courses. Trish lifted my self-esteem, so I aimed high for myself."

Trish admits it wasn't always easy keeping her "little sister" on track. The adolescent Keesha repeatedly tested Trish's loyalty by inviting her friends along on their meetings together, smoking cigarettes and constantly challenging and testing her mentor. All that changed when the two were out for dinner one time and Keesha, who was underage, ordered a beer. "Trish got really angry," recalls Keesha. "She had never gotten mad before, so I was quite surprised. I had finally crossed a line."

Trish tolerated her mentee's behaviour, optimistic that Keesha's attitude would eventually change. "A mentor plants seeds that don't always come to fruition until much later," explains Trish, with wisdom. "I wanted to quit when Keesha was 14 because she wasn't listening and was acting irresponsibly. We got through it because I believed that something I said would stick."

A lot of things did stick and that's why Keesha became a big sister herself three years ago. Keesha's mentee, Teana Torrebadell, comes from a similarly troubled background. Teana's mother has a disability that prevents her from taking an active part in her daughter's life. Teana, now 15, failed Grade 8 and was all set to drop out of school until Keesha passed on the lessons she learned from Trish. Teana is now doing well in school and would like to become a criminal lawyer. "I still don't like school," she says, "but Keesha has shown me how important it is to achieving my goals."

Trish isn't surprised that Keesha is having such an effect on Teana. "What I wanted to do for Keesha is inspire her to believe in herself and take responsibility for her own life no matter how many bad things had happened in her past," says Trish.

Keesha sees her relationship with Teana as an extension of the one she had with Trish. Keesha and Teana meet once a week and, over a meal, a walk in the park or a B.C. Lions football game, talk about their lives and the future. "In the same way Trish enjoyed watching me grow, I love seeing Teana thrive," says Keesha. "My day feels complete when I realize that Teana is living her life in the most positive way possible."

Looking for a meaningful relationship? So are 10,000 children. Click on and volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Listening and being a friend
Eight-year-old Erica Cross eats her lunch a little more quickly than usual and then waits impatiently for her in-school mentor, Debbie Hiltz, to appear. When Debbie, 47, finally arrives at the young girl's elementary school in Hebbville, N.S., Erica whisks her mentor off to the library. Usually, she and Debbie spend the hour they have each week together doing arts and crafts and playing board games, or going to the playground where Erica plays on the swings and climbs on the monkey bars. Today, however, Erica is eager to discuss a problem she is having with a schoolmate. A few months ago, one of Erica's peers borrowed some of her costume jewelry - rings shaped like a butterfly, a star and a rose, and a bracelet - and now refuses to return the items. "I asked her to give them back to me, just like you said," Erica explains to Debbie. "She laughed and said ‘No way.'"

Debbie is sympathetic and the two discuss what Erica should try next before turning their attention to a game of checkers. "Doing things with Debbie always gets my mind off of things and cheers me up," says Erica. "She listens to me better than my teachers and friends. I like that."

Debbie, the manager of a branch of the Bank of Montreal (BMO) in Bridgewater, N.S., became an in-school mentor in 2001 after a representative of South Shore Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association in Bridgewater gave a presentation on the program at her bank. Debbie, whose own children are now 18 and 23, was looking to get involved in a volunteer activity that didn't take a lot of time away from her job and family. In-school mentoring involves a commitment of just one hour a week, which fits nicely into Debbie's schedule. Furthermore, like an increasing number of companies, the BMO allows employees time off during working hours to volunteer. "Being an in-school mentor makes me feel good about myself," says Debbie. "It is wonderful to be around Erica, who is bubbly and optimistic about the world ahead of her, and realize I might be contributing to that."

The first Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Canada in-school mentoring program began in Hamilton in 1994. Today it is the fastest-growing mentoring initiative in Canada, with more than 5,000 children in 963 schools taking part. In-school mentoring involves an adult or an older youth mentoring a child or teenager directly in the mentee's school by participating in activities and discussing topics that the young person chooses. "The mentees benefit from having a role model," says Margo Dauphinee, executive director of the South Shore Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association.

That is where Debbie sees herself fitting in. Erica's parents separated last year, and her father, who was given custody of the child and her two older sisters, supported his daughter's decision to have a mentor to aid in the transition. While mentoring programs are never intended to replace a missing parent, having an older person around, such as Debbie, whose entire attention is devoted to the child can be positive. "A lot can go wrong with children during parents' breakups," says Debbie. "I know Erica is affected by what has happened with her family, but she will be OK. My job is to help in whatever way I can, even if that means just listening and being a friend."

Looking for a meaningful relationship? So are 10,000 children. Click on and volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

A history of helping
entoring is far from new. The word is derived from Greek mythology: When Odysseus went off to war, he left his only son, Telemachus, in the care of a wise older man named Mentor. In aboriginal cultures, shamans and elders were their tribes' mentors, guiding the young through passages of life including puberty and childbirth. In Medieval times, guild masters were responsible for not only their apprentices' crafts but also the development of the youths' values and social, spiritual and personal beliefs.

Formal mentoring programs in North America can be traced back to 1904 when Ernest Coulter, a journalist and child activist, spoke to a New York City men's club about the large number of children coming through the court system from poor families in which the parents were often absent. Coulter called on the men to become mentors to the kids, laying the foundation for the organization Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.

While Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Canada, founded in 1913, was one of the first agencies in the country to offer formal mentoring programs, there are many other community organizations and businesses that support the practice today.
Research from the last 15 years shows that mentoring offers many benefits not just to the mentee but also to the mentor and to society as a whole.

• A 1989-1991 U.S. study found that teenagers whose families were on social assistance were more likely to graduate high school, have fewer arrests, enrol in college and be optimistic about the future if they had mentors.

• In 1993, a study done in Indiana found that of 200 nonviolent
young offenders participating in a mentoring program, nearly 80 per cent avoided rearrest.

• A 1994 report by the Social Planning Council of Hamilton noted that 78 per cent of boys who came from a family that required social assistance, but who had a mentor through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, did not rely on welfare as an adult.

• A 2002 study published by Child Trends, a research group in Washington, D.C., showed that the longer the mentor and mentee stayed together, the better the outcome. The same research found that youth participating in mentoring programs had fewer unexcused absences from school than young people from similar backgrounds who were not mentored.

• Susan Weinberger, a leading North American researcher (dubbed "Dr. Mentor"), has found that employees whose company allows them business time to mentor a child return to work happier, have greater pride in their company, will work longer hours and will feel better about themselves and their own families.

Weinberger further notes that it tends to be more important for mentors and mentees to share a common interest, such as art, music or sports, than for them to come from the same cultural background. It is crucial, however, that the mentee feels accepted and comfortable with the mentor about his or her race, culture and gender.

These days, in a time when many families have two parents working, when classes are oversize and communities often fragmented, formal mentoring programs have increased importance. "Mentoring," concludes Weinberger, "is a way to bring the community back into the life of a child."

How to become a mentor
For more information on how to become a mentor or mentee, contact Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Canada at 1-800-263-9133. The organization's website,, provides telephone numbers and addresses of all the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters' agencies, as well as descriptions of the group's programs, including In-school Mentoring, Couples for Kids and Digital Heroes, an electronic version of the traditional Big Brother/Big Sister relationship.

Many other nonprofit organizations provide mentoring programs. You can find some of these agencies listed at Local employment offices, libraries, city and town halls and community centres may also have contact information for local groups that offer mentoring.

Looking for a meaningful relationship? So are 10,000 children. Click on and volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Some facts about Big Brother/Big Sister programs:

Outcomes for children served in Traditional Big Brother/Big Sister programs

Research conducted in Canada and the United States has shown evidence of the following outcomes:

• Mentored children are less likely to lose their temper when they get angry and show greater self-reliance than children not involved in Big Brother/Big Sister mentoring programs.
• Mentored children show a decrease in anger/frustration and worry and are also less often sad, less likely to be fearful or anxious, to give up easily and to cry excessively.
• Mentored children are more likely to step in to stop an argument.
• Mentored children are more likely to "get along" with their other parent, their peers and their siblings.
• Mentored children had more favourable attitudes toward school and better overall academic performance than non-mentored children. They also skipped half as many days of school.
• Mentored children were 46 percent less likely to initiate alcohol and other drug use.

Outcomes for children served in In-School Mentoring programs

Research conducted in Canada and the United States has shown evidence of the following outcomes:

• 64 per cent of students developed more positive attitudes toward school
• 58 per cent achieved higher grades in social studies, languages and math
• 60 per cent improved relationships with adults
• 56 per cent improved relationships with peers
• 55 per cent were better able to express their feelings
• 64 per cent developed higher levels of self-confidence
• 62 per cent were more likely to trust their teachers
• 77 per cent of teachers, parents and volunteers involved in the program reported increases in students' self-confidence
• 45 per cent of the students showed improvement in classroom participation
• 47 per cent of the students showed improvement in tolerating frustrations
• number of unexcused absences dropped when compared to the previous school year

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Community & Current Events

Share a little magic