2013-10-10 / News

Men needed to guide at-risk youngsters

Islander Deb Saunders is executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters
By Margo Sullivan

Deb Saunders Deb Saunders Jamestown’s Deborah Saunders is looking for a few good men to become Big Brothers.

Saunders, the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State, said the organization still faces a chronic shortage of male mentors but has made progress since efforts began in 2010.

Rhode Island also has a separate Big Brothers organization, which was founded some 60 years ago by Judge Francis McCabe.

Big Brothers Big Sisters started as a Big Sisters chapter and then in 2010 extended its mission to help boys.

Saunders took over as executive director four years ago. She moved to Jamestown a year later with her 16-year-old Siamese cat. (Her adult daughter lives in Boston.)

Residing on Conanicut Island was never the plan for Saunders. She bumped into Jamestown on the way to Newport and was drawn in by the town’s natural beauty and “Mayberry” atmosphere.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said.

Jamestown, she said, is like Andy Griffith’s town, where everybody knows everybody. But it’s also a convenient place to live, she added. Saunders said she can find all the shops and services she needs without leaving the island.

Saunders had been working for the YMCA in Philadelphia when the job with Big Sisters first materialized. She was eager to come back to this area, she said.

She grew up in Agawam, Mass., outside of Springfield, one of four children in the family.

In college she majored in psychology and planned to apply her studies to a business career. Then after Westfield State, she earned a master’s degree in education from Cambridge College in Massachusetts.

Nonprofit organizations became her career focus.

“I’ve always been involved with nonprofits,” she said. Saunders spent 15 years with the YMCA.

In addition to the Y, she worked 10 years with sexually abused youngsters at Children’s Cove on Cape Cod.

Saunders said Big Brothers Big Sisters is active in Jamestown, even though many people don’t realize the need for mentoring exists here.

“We actually do have some kids in Jamestown,” she said.

The typical arrangement is that the Big – as she abbreviates the volunteer – picks up the youngster for a little adventure. It might be a trip over to Newport or out to Beavertail. Another popular destination is Slice of Heaven, she said.

“They go to Slice and talk about school or issues in town or peer pressure,” she said.

The commitment is for two hours every other week. According to Saunders, the need for a sympathetic adult extends across economic brackets.

“Even wealthy kids, even intact families, have Bigs in their lives,” she said.

In addition to recruiting college students to sign up (particularly athletes), Big Brothers Big Sisters has connected with couples willing to spend time with the youngsters. The couples program started about a year ago as a response to men’s hesitation to volunteer on their own.

So far, all the couples have been a male and a female partner, but Saunders said that’s because no same-sex couples have applied yet.

In the past, Saunders acknowledged, some Big Brothers chapters would not accept adult women who are willing to mentor boys, but Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State does match women with boys in the effort to reduce the waiting time for a Big.

The feeling was, the value of having time with a “caring adult” matters more than gender, she said. However, no men are allowed to mentor girls. That’s one reason why the waiting list for boys is longer than the girls’.

More than 200,000 Rhode Islanders have some contact with Big Brothers Big Sisters, she said, and the connection ranges from donating clothing to volunteering as a Big.

Big Brothers Big Sisters now has six donation centers and 100 clothing bins statewide. It also has a truck that picks up household goods and clothing door to door.

The group is also involved with a number of task forces, says Saunders, who noted that 4,300 Rhode Island children have a parent in prison and they’re a “vulnerable population.”

Another special effort is for children with a military parent. “When a parent is deployed, the child needs someone else to talk to,” she said. The organization fills that void.

Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors about 500 youngsters every year. The commitment to each child is 12 months, and during a typical year, 300 new children will come into the program, while 300 others “age out.”

The organization works hard to keep track of the children’s progress to see the effectiveness of the program. Leaders of Big Brothers Big Sisters keep an eye on academics and if the kids are staying out of trouble and avoiding risky behavior.

“We measure the difference we make,” Saunders said.

The goal is to show people who donate money, goods and time how their efforts have made a measurable difference in the children’s lives.

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