Making a ‘big’ difference in youth lives
By Amy Layton
January is National Mentoring Month: Meet three Cornell staff members mentoring local youth through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ithaca and Tompkins County.
Ted Bates is a licensed social worker who provides short-term counseling and referrals to eligible Cornellians as a Counselor with the Faculty & Staff Assistance Program. But his passion for helping others doesn’t end there. Since May 2022, he has been volunteering his time as a Big Brother as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Ithaca & Tompkins County.
Bates isn’t the only Cornellian shaping the lives of local children. Aaron King, House Assistant Dean, William Keeton House, was involved with BBBS as an undergraduate, and continues volunteering today with his Little, with whom he got matched in November 2021. “Community involvement and volunteering were a major part of my life, so it feels wonderful to get engaged again here in the local Ithaca community,” King says.
Christina Neitzey, an attorney at Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, helps provide free legal representation to individuals and organizations facing threats to their First Amendment rights. Outside of her work on campus, she also coaches group fitness classes and is a Big Sister for BBBS. “Shortly after I moved to Ithaca in the summer of 2021, I was looking for a way to get involved in the community. I saw a yard sign for BBBS and applied to become a Big that day,” Neitzey recalls.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ithaca and Tompkins County, a program of the Ithaca Youth Bureau, focuses on Community Based mentoring to help the younger generation reach their full potential. After a thorough matching process, each Big/Little pair is supported by a trained “Match Support Specialist” who helps the volunteer meet the child’s family and design activity plans that work for them both. “I was surprised by how thorough the matching process was,” Bates says. “Staff at Big Brothers Big Sisters took time to get to know me and to learn about my strengths and interests, and to connect me to a good fit.” Matches frequently bloom into meaningful friendships.
Volunteers typically meet once a week with their Little and spend a few hours enjoying fun and often educational activities. “My Little and I do a variety of things when we meet up…we talk a lot. He has a great mischievous sense of humor, and we laugh a lot too,” says Bates. Introducing young people to new experiences is key. “I try to encourage my Little to try new things when we're together, and also allow her to choose what our time together looks like,” says Neitzey. King enjoys involving his Little in campus activities including an Alpha Phi Alpha groundbreaking event downtown and visiting the Johnson Art Museum and Dairy Bar. The Bigs enjoy encouraging their mentees to spend time outdoors or participating in physical activities. Hiking, ice skating, sledding, exploring, and sports are often favorite pursuits.
Programs like BBBS are invaluable to the children who join and to the community as a whole. King says, “for the Littles, it provides a stable and positive relationship with someone focused solely on them as a person. And often, they get to be introduced to experiences, spaces, and possibilities they might not have encountered otherwise.” Neitzey agrees. “At its core, the program is about providing kids with one-on-one mentorship to help define and develop their potential. I believe we all owe something to the youth in our community -- it sounds cliche, but they're our future! It really does "take a village" to raise a kid, and programs like BBBS help make that concept a reality by connecting adults and kids who might not otherwise have crossed paths organically,” she says.
Dedicated one-on-one time is not only valuable to the children, but to the adults, as well. As Bates notes, “programs like this are so important for adults because they're an opportunity to use the skills and experiences we've developed to mentor a young person. They give us a chance to plug into our communities in a meaningful way.” Additionally, being a mentor makes Bates feel good. “The most obvious way that being a mentor has enhanced my wellbeing is that spending time with my Little has been fun. Being with him also helps me experience Ithaca in a new, fresh way that feels welcome,” he says. Neitzey enjoys spending time with people from different walks of life, which helps her maintain balance and perspective. Not only that, mentoring her Little also gives her space to be a kid again herself. “Setting time aside each week for activities with my Little means setting time aside to play, or be outside, or create art -- all activities that enhance my overall wellbeing,” she says. King notes that volunteering also helps him in his occupation. “In my professional work supporting college students, many of the challenges faced began many years earlier. Being a Big is an exciting opportunity to enter the conversation a bit earlier,” he says.
BBBS of Ithaca & Tompkins County matches adults with children ages 6 through 14. Volunteers are urgently needed. To learn more about becoming a mentor, follow Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ithaca on Facebook and Instagram, and visit their website.
Amy Layton is the Work/Life Program Coordinator in the Division of Human Resources.