Last June, Naomi Recania finally did something she had been meaning to do for a while — become a big sister.
After signing up to be a mentor, or “big,” with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Barbara County, Recania got her wish and was matched with 9-year-old Jimena.
The pair was among several groups of bigs and littles who gathered Thursday at Santa Barbara’s Shoreline Park to celebrate National Mentoring Month over cake and to raise awareness about the need for more mentors and donations.
The program works to pair mentors with at-risk kids, ages 7 to 18, and they share a couple of hours a week spending time together.
There are currently about 100 children on the waiting list countywide — waiting to be matched with a willing adult.
“She’s changed my life in a significant way,” Recania said. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
The Family Service Agency, which operates the program, is launching a campaign to recruit 30 volunteers and 30 sponsors in 30 days.
In addition to volunteers, $1,500 a year is needed for each pair of bigs and littles to pay for things such as background screening, case management and enrichment activities.
Lisa Brabo, FSA executive director, said people shouldn’t think of mentoring as spending time with the child, but sharing it, doing activities that the pair enjoys together.
Program manager Sarah Rudd-Lawlor encouraged people to think about the important adults who had an influence on their childhoods, and then imagine those people not there.
Many children in the Santa Barbara area may have parents who care, but they may work two jobs and have less time to give, she said. Or frequent moves resulting from a tenuous financial situation could keep a child from bonding with a teacher who could be a stalwart presence in their lives, she said.
“These are good kids full of potential with loving families who just need more,” she said. “Dozens of kids are waiting for mentors and donors.”
The group found in 2012 that of the Santa Barbara County youths connected with mentors, 86 percent improved their academic performance, 89 percent avoided delinquency, 87 percent improved class participation and 81 percent reported a better attitude toward school.
Recania echoed that in her experience mentoring.
Since then, Jimena has become more focused on her homework and more serious about her studies, she said.
Jimena’s grandmother has told Recania how lucky the young girl was to have her as a mentor, a conversation that brought tears to the mentors’ eyes Thursday.
Click here for more information on how to get involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Barbara County.