Being a ‘big’ influence

Big Brothers and Big Sisters make a huge difference to kids

Chike Agbasi learned the value of mentorship at an early age.

“I struggled in math when I was young,” says the 28-year-old government employee. “I had one teacher who went above and beyond by taking the time to meet after school and go through some of the harder problems. She helped me get through grade 11 math and a lot of the tough parts of high school.”

Agbasi joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto in 2011 and was soon matched with Dalton, who waited three years for a mentor.

Early on, Agbasi remembers booking a day or two off work to visit Dalton’s school.

“I talked to the principal, talked to his teachers, because he was always getting in trouble,” Agbasi says. “Now … he actually called me to say … ‘I want you to come to my house so you can see my report card. It’s the best report card I’ve ever gotten!’”

Dalton, who’s now 12 years old, says he had trouble listening in the classroom, and that Agbasi taught him to focus.

“My grades weren’t that bad, but they weren’t good,” he says.

Agbasi also helped Dalton to stay out of mischief.

“He’s helped me ignore … friends that get me into trouble,” Dalton says. “If someone tells you to do something, don’t follow them if it’s a bad choice.”

In addition to helping with his homework, Agbasi plays sports with Dalton — his favourite is basketball — and takes him to games. He’s even brought Dalton to fancy restaurants, consciously being a positive role model so that Dalton can learn.

Thanks to their bond, the pair received the organization’s Big Brother and Little Brother of the Year award in 2012.

“It’s been over two years now,” Agbasi says. “And I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Founded in 1913, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto turns 100 this year and as part of its centennial celebrations the organization is looking to reunite former Bigs and Littles and to actively recruit new adult volunteers.

In particular, the organization is facing a shortage of mentors for boys living in the Scarborough, Etobicoke and Rexdale areas, says Big Brothers Big Sisters’ outreach coordinator, 26-year-old Max Beaumont.

“I don’t think people are aware of what we do,” he says. “Or of the immense impact that it has on our communities.”

Beaumont himself was hired by the organization last November, after becoming a big brother.

“I got to a place in my life where I was in a stable position,” he says. “I thought, ‘I wouldn’t be where I was if I didn’t have a mentor in my life,’ and I was able to say, ‘this is my chance to give back and mentor someone else.’ ”

Like any interested candidate, Beaumont submitted a written application, along with a police record check and three or four references, to the organization. He then spoke with staff members, who interview every potential volunteer, child and child’s family.

When a potential match is found, it’s discussed with all parties.

“We put a lot of time into matching our candidates,” Beaumont says. “We want to make sure that our matches last.”

Twenty-four-year-old Rexdale resident and big sister Myanca Rodrigues remembers having wonderful teachers and advisors in high school and says she received a full university scholarship because of their guidance.

“I saw a lot of my classmates … it wasn’t for lack of potential, but sometimes they missed opportunities or their lives ended up in different directions because they didn’t have support or they didn’t seek the resources provided to them at school,” she says.

“When I started university, I felt kind of disconnected from the community I grew up in,” says Rodrigues, who now works in research. “I felt that Big Brothers and Big Sisters would enable me to maintain a connection with my community while at the same time helping someone else out.”

In 2008 Rodrigues was matched with Priya, an 11-year-old who had recently lost her father to cancer, and whose mother was also running a business and caring for an autistic son.

“I would say she’s a lot like me,” says Rodrigues. “She’s very ambitious and driven but takes time to enjoy life and her friends and participate in school activities.”

Rodrigues also describes Priya as a “girl’s girl”. The pair will often shop, visit nail and hair salons and work out together. Rodrigues enjoys helping Priya, who’s now in grade 10, with homework and has helped Priya plan for university by walking her through the process.

“There’s a saying: ‘he who fails to plan, plans to fail,’ ” Rodrigues says. “When I met Priya … although she wanted to go to university, there were gaps, like she had an end-goal but didn’t know how to get there…. I feel like I’ve able to fill in those gaps.”

Beaumont, who lives near Forest Hill, was matched with his little brother, Eddie, last year.

“Since then, my life’s been different,” he says. “I have a new friend in my life, someone who looks up to me and I feel like I’m a kid again.”

Rodrigues and Beaumont both see their mentees every two weeks, while Agbasi visits Dalton every weekend.

Beaumont says that he and Eddie bonded over a mutual love of sports, though they’re equally likely to simply go out for a hamburger and catch up.

“We’ve seen movies, played laser tag, gone to museums, been to Wonderland and Raptor’s games — stuff like that,” Beaumont says. “The time commitment is not a lot … For as little as four hours a month you can change the life of a young person.”

About this article:

By: Eric Emin Wood
Posted: Mar 14 2013 5:57 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto