Big Brothers Big Sisters nonprofit faces shortage of mentors in St. Louis — especially men

The waiting list at Big Brothers Big Sisters never shrinks.

“People always ask, ‘Why isn’t the wait list going down?’” said Becky Hatter, president and CEO of the mentorship program’s regional chapter. “It’s because the children just keep coming.”

Meanwhile, mentors to pair with those kids come along at a much slower pace.

That scarcity is highlighted by a quick glance at the wait list for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. The local arm of the national organization has about 1,000 children waiting for a match — 800 of whom are boys.

The chapter, which primarily serves children in St. Louis and St. Louis County, says it has met its goal in a year-end campaign that sought to net “90 men in 90 days” to join the program and become new “bigs” for male “littles.” But even though 96 new men and counting have signed up, the overall need will remain the same, as new boys get added to the wait list.

Whether they boost the likelihood that boys and girls will stay in school or help instill small but important everyday lessons, adult role models can make a big difference to children — particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That rings especially true for male mentors, who are in scarce supply for many children, with the lion’s share of single-parent homes led by women.

Hatter says that there is always a pool of a few thousand area children aiming to be paired up through the program, with 100 to 150 parents calling each month, looking to add their child to the list. The organization bumps them onto its “managed wait list” of about 1,000 children only when it is able to take other kids off of it.

Hatter says the average “little brother” on the wait list is between 7 and 14 years old, and comes from a single-parent home.

“They’re primarily African-American boys living in low-income households, but with very loving and caring parents. I think a lot of people miss that. The reason a lot of mothers and grandmothers call us is they want a little something extra for their boys,” she said. “It’s a very vulnerable telephone call for a parent, to say, ‘I need help.’ That telephone call alone absolutely expresses the love and care they have for their children.”

Meanwhile, the typical male mentors sought by the program are between 25 and 45 years old. While Hatter expressed strong gratitude for current volunteers, she said that about three-quarters of them are white, and that the organization would love to find ways to attract a more diverse group of mentors.

“We’re very much looking for African-American men,” said Hatter. “How we can support them and their ideas about mentoring is very important to us.”

The program asks that mentors spend about four hours a month with their littles, for a minimum of one year. Activities can range from hanging out to playing games or simple, low-cost outings to parks, movies, restaurants and more.

“It’s been a very rewarding experience,” says Evan Lewis, who works on renewable energy investments for U.S. Bank Community Development Corp. and who has been a mentor for five years. “It’s not a big financial burden either since the organization provides so many perks and activities.”

His “little brother,” Nick, is a middle-schooler in Maryland Heights. Lewis says they have a lot in common, from similar personality types to similar backgrounds — including losing their fathers at a relatively young age.

“It’s almost like looking at myself in the past … just in a different body and different region,” said Lewis, who is originally from Florida. “The program is important to me overall because I wish maybe it’s something I had a chance to participate in as a kid. I did have older brothers but they had their own lives. There wasn’t always a male role model I could hang around with.”

He and Nick like to play video games or sports, and also to eat. One of their latest outings was to get monstrous burgers at the Hi-Pointe Drive-In.

Even if it might seem relatively inconsequential, Hatter says that, over time, those small interactions can add up to help make a difference for children in the program. They convey a sense of care, value and self-worth to mentees and, for some, can provide important doses of relief from <a href="http://nie.post-dispatch.com/%3Ca%20href%3D"http://graphics.stltoday.com/apps/stress/"">http://graphics.stltoday.com/apps/stress/" target="_blank">stressful homes or neighborhoods</a>.

“That all has real serious implications on well-being and their brain, even,” said Hatter. “After that starts building up in a child, their performance in school increases. … They’re calmer, have better self-esteem.”

Lewis encourages others to give the program a try, and believes that in the long run, the investment of time and energy can pay off for more than just the mentor and mentee.

“I’m a big proponent of building up the youth,” said Lewis. “I believe you should catch them while they’re young. … It can shape how they view the world and help them get to a point where they’re in position to give back.”