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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida in need of mentors

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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida
Big Sister Emma and Little Sister Ja'Zay are a recently matched pair for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida program.

Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters are celebrating National Mentoring Month and using it to beef up their volunteer roster.

Based in Pensacola, the local chapter of BBBS covers five counties in the Panhandle — Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, and Bay — serving 55 kids last year. Blake Howerton is in the local office, which has served kids aged 5 to 18 for more than three decades, through matching them up with adult mentors.

“January is National Mentoring Month — basically a nationwide celebration of all the mentors who have made an impact on someone’s life, and it’s an awareness campaign to recruit more mentors,” said Howerton. “We definitely like to stress the importance of youth mentoring, and how it can change the course of a young person’s life.”

And there’s some new terminology to be learned, regarding the kids and the grownups.

“We call them ‘Littles,’ and then they have a ‘Big’ so we have our Bigs and Littles,” Howerton said, laughing. “The Bigs are our mentors to the Littles.”

Events this month, says Howerton, are aimed at, among other things, recruiting new mentors to help serve a surplus of children needing partners.

“We are in a pretty critical need for mentors right now; we have probably over 100 littles on the waiting list for a big brother or a big sister,” Howerton said. “So that’s what we’re doing this month, we’re recruiting. We’ve actually got the Ice Flyers game down at the [Pensacola] Bay Center on Saturday. We’ll have a couple of tables there.”

The qualifications to be a mentor are fairly straightforward. You have to be 18 or older, have some type of transportation, and then the interview process.

“We go through a complete background check. It’s very important to us [because] safety is number one,” Howerton said. “And we get to know a lot about you; we want to know your interests, what you like to do, what you don’t like to do. That way we can match you with the right kid.”

What makes the program so unique, he says, is that match between big brother or sister, and little brother or sister.

“We want to make that match long-lasting; another requirement is that we ask for a year commitment,” said Howerton. “That way that child can have someone in their life at least for a year. Someone who’s consistent in their life. And really, you only have to see them twice a month, with contact each week.”

And a BBBS relationship can lead to the program becoming a part of the lives of kids, who grow up and themselves become “bigs.”

“It happens all the time; one of the board members over in our Okaloosa area — he was a little back in the day, and he’s actually mentored, I believe, three littles since he’s become a Big. So, that’s a great example and he’s given back to his community after he’s been a little and we’re super fortunate for that.”

And Blake Howerton says as a mentor, you don’t have to plan the elaborate field trips or splashy visits to high-profile venues. You can keep it simple if you like.

“You really just have to share your time,” he said. “Taken them to the grocery store, take them to a movie, take them to the park (or) take a walk. It doesn’t have to be a strenuous activity to entertain your little. These kids — they just want someone to listen to them and just someone to spend time with outside of their home.”

You can get the ball rolling on your mentoring experience by contacting Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Florida at bbbsnwfl.org or call (850) 433-KIDS.