Big Brothers Big Sisters expanding in Jefferson County

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) is expanding its programs in Jefferson County, and could provide community service projects for PAHS students.

The same night that guidance counselor Emily Cassidy and PAHS Principal David London announced proposed changes to the senior project and standardized testing, respectively, Heidi Stahlnecker, program director for BBBS of Jefferson, Elk and McKean counties, discussed with the Punxsutawney Area School Board ways that both students and potential “bigs” can get involved.

Monday, Stahlnecker outlined several community service projects for students, such as art projects; distribution of print materials; computer projects, such as Power Point presentations; sharing hobbies and talents with matched bigs and littles; serving on a BBBS task force; or participating in events such as the Bowl for Kids’ Sake, which this year will be held March 12 at Brookville Lanes and March 26 at Groundhog Lanes in Punxsy.

In her presentation, Cassidy told the board that counselors and administrators seek to adjust the senior project toward a more career-, community service-oriented effort, starting with this year’s freshmen.

Stahlnecker said the Jefferson, Elk and McKean counties’ BBBS chapter is based from the Guidance Center in DuBois.

A local program, Volunteer Friend, was developed in McKean County in 1980 before beginning a process to become affiliated with BBBS in 1989 and receiving full membership in the national organization in 1992.

The program expanded to Elk County in 2001, and in Jefferson County in July 2008, Stahlnecker said, after it received a grant. The first match between a big and a little was made in February 2009.

Stahlnecker said challenges that BBBS faces include confusion about the program; budget impasses; and staff turnover, but the biggest challenge is finding bigs, or adults willing to offer a few hours of their time a few times a month to take part in activities with youngsters age five or up.

She said while there have been 25 matches established, there are 37 children ready and waiting to be matched with a big. Twenty-two of those children reside in and around Punxsy, she said.

Jefferson County children in the BBBS program generally come from a variety of families with diverse backgrounds, Stahlnecker said. They are able to benefit from a mentoring relationship; have a parent or guardian who is willing to support the match relationship; and have experienced some hardship that might make growing up a bit tougher.

Mentors, or bigs, also come from diverse backgrounds, are at least 18 years old and need no special training or experience, Stahlnecker said.

In addition to having a valid Pennsylvania driver’s license, reliable transportation and a clean background check, bigs also want to make a difference and are able to commit four hours a month for one year, she said.

Bigs and littles usually meet two to three times a month, deciding on activities together, Stahlnecker said. Those activities depend on the interests and hobbies of those involved in the match.

Stahlnecker said studies show that littles who spent time with bigs, compared to those in a control group, were 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs; 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol; 30 percent less likely to be involved in a fight; missed 52 percent fewer days of school; 37 percent less likely to skip a class; and had improved academic performance in school and better peer and family relationships at home.

Mentors in the study didn’t do anything special, Stahlnecker said, but it was the fact that littles had another caring adult in their lives to confide in and look up to.

Shari Weber, elementary principal at Bell Township, Jenks Hill and Mapleview, said she served as a big to a little while living in Texas, and “That was what made me want to go to school to be a teacher.”