For 10 years, Tiera Johnson has been repeating the words to herself so often that they feel like her own: Do well. Be well. Be happy.
That’s what her mentor Jeanne Mell has said to her on practically each encounter over the last decade. For Mell, the words of wisdom that she had heard all her life from her father had become commonplace. For Johnson, her mentee in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware program, the phrase affected her thinking and perspective on life.
“I say it to myself all the time when I have challenges, and it reminds me to just do my best and be happy,” says the 18-year-old, who graduated this year from Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington.
Tiera is among the 1,200 children and youth—or Littles, as they are known inside the program—who are bolstered by mentors each year through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware.
Adults agree to engage in one-on-one time with children considered at risk, but they never know how what they say and do will transform young lives. And it’s those small deeds and thoughtful words that have for the past 50 years created one success story after another.
In December, the organization will celebrate its golden anniversary and honor the 2014 Big Brother and Big Sister of the Year.
Executive director Mary P. Fox, who has been with Big Brothers for 30 of those years, says the group’s premise has always been that children desperately need multiple adult role models and mentors in their lives to help them reach their full potential.
Fox joined the staff straight out of the University of Delaware as a coordinator. In 1991, she accepted the position of director of programs, which she held for 20 years.
“I was directly involved with our mentors and families, which I loved,” she says. “So while I hadn’t originally aspired to become the executive director, when the opening arose, I realized that it would allow me the opportunity to have a greater impact on the future direction of the agency.”
To be sure, Fox still maintains a hands-on-approach and nurtures personal relationships with the volunteers and families. “They’re such wonderful, giving people. I have so much respect for them,” she adds.
Big Brother Big Sisters focuses on helping youth who are
economically disadvantaged, live in households run by single parents and lack opportunities outside of the home, meaning they aren’t able to attend baseball practice, visit libraries or partake in community events.
“It’s the parents who come to us, realizing that their child needs other positive adults in his or her life and exposure to new places and ideas,” Fox says.
Indeed, with kindness, compassion and guidance, children are fortified and nourished. But with a half-century of experience in Delaware, Big Brothers Big Sisters can do much more than tout feel-good philosophies.
“Back then, when we talked about the impact of having a Big Brother or Big Sister in a kid’s life, we talked in anecdotal stories about kids in tough situations who succeeded thanks to relationships that lasted for years and years. Now we are a proven, evidence-based program,” Fox says. “The research has backed what we have been saying for years, and in 2014, it’s important to show our donors and supporters how the program works.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters has demonstrated its success in three critical areas: educational success, avoidance of risky behaviors including juvenile delinquency and socio-emotional competencies—such as higher aspirations, greater self-confidence and better relationships. Researchers found that after 18 months of spending time with their Bigs, children in the program were 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs and 52 percent less likely to skip school among other positive statistics.
In addition to community-based mentoring, the organization also offers mentoring for children with an incarcerated parent, underperforming students and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
But Big Brothers Big Sisters is also about the act of being involved—speaking kind words, offering a pat on the shoulder for a job well done.
John Graham, 46, a former Little who is now a Big Brother, remembers the man who came into his life when he desperately needed another adult role model. His parents had divorced and his mother toiled at two jobs to put food on the table for her five children. She had little time or resources to take them on excursions.
But she was wise enough to sign up her two oldest boys for mentoring.
Graham, of Dover, remembers that his brother’s mentor canceled often. Not his Big Brother. “I knew I could count on Bob to show up every Saturday. He was that reliable and consistent presence that I really needed in my life to keep me out of trouble,” he says.
Bob cared enough to keep his promises, take him to ball games, ask him about his schoolwork and more.
Graham credits his mentor for exposing him to a better life and distracting him from the pressure of peers, who at the age of 10 were already being arrested for petty crimes.
“I can honestly say if it were not for Bob, I would have ended up in jail,” says Graham. The relationship lasted two years. They did not stay in touch. Yet, three years ago, Graham reached out to the man on Facebook out of the blue, almost four decades later, to thank him for turning his life around.
Fox, who has mentored several children, says it’s always in the details. Her first little sister, Jessie O’Hara Doyle, also found her on Facebook a few years ago.
“Little things that I can barely remember, she remembers clearly. She mentioned how I talked to her about not staring at people. For her, it was a lesson about treating people with respect,” Fox says.
Part of the reason that mentoring changes lives is because when a caring adult believes in a child, that child begins to believe in herself. Case in point: Tiera Johnson.
She struggled academically in her senior year and doubted that she would attend college. But Mell was there to talk facts and explain how she might not ever attend if she takes off a year or two. More important, Mell reminded Tiera that she was an intelligent young woman with a bright future. But she needed to work to achieve her dreams.
Tiera will be taking early-childhood education classes at Delaware Technical Community College this fall. One day, she hopes to open a youth recreation center that inspires children to develop their skills and talents.
In the meantime, she will keep repeating Mell’s words: “Do well. Be well. Be happy.”