Growing up in a single parent household, Cainhoy peninsula resident Briana Nicastro knew she wanted to give back. After experiencing her own struggles navigating life as a teen, Nicastro understood the value a mentor could bring.
“My parents were divorced. I lived with just my mom,” she said. “No one in my family had ever gone to college, so I had no idea how to apply to schools. It would have been really cool to have someone (to help with that).”
Nicastro first learned of the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) program while living in Boston after college. One of her co-workers had been a mentor for BBBS – and his “Little” remained an important part of his life.
“They just had this really close bond, even though the match was already closed,” said Nicastro. “They became best friends - and I just really loved his story.”
Nicastro was so inspired that when she moved to Charleston, she decided to get involved in the program herself. She reached out to BBBS of the Lowcountry earlier this year, and was matched with her little sister, Tayla, 11, a few months ago. The pair have had multiple outings thus far, including going to movies and painting pottery. Things still feel new, but they are making good progress, said Nicastro.
“It means a lot because her mom will text me afterwards and say (Tayla) had such a good time,” she added. “…Going from our first meeting, where her mom did most of the talking for her, because she is so shy, to now like little baby steps of her opening up. It’s cool to see that transition. She’s coming out of her shell!”
And that is exactly what BBBS of the Lowcountry would hope to see in a match. According to the organization’s president and CEO, Merridith Crowe, studies confirm that the presence of a caring, consistent adult can make a significant difference in the trajectory of a child’ life. There are some 30,000 tri-county children living in poverty, notes Crowe, the majority of them in single parent households.
“These parents are good parents,” explained Crowe. “Like many of us, they may be working to overcome significant life challenges, but they’re invested. They just want more for their son or their daughter, so they seek help….When we have a team, a mentor and a parent surrounding a kid – that’s when the magic happens.”
Right now, BBBS of the Lowcountry has about 300 kids on a waiting list to be matched with mentors. And mentors from a variety of areas are needed, including Daniel Island and the Cainhoy peninsula.
“These kids are full of promise and potential,” added Crowe. “They already have it. Our job is to have their backs.”
To serve as a big brother or big sister, BBBS asks that mentors commit to a 12 month relationship with the child and get together with their “Littles” two to four times per month. All parties are screened in advance to make the best matches possible, said Crowe.
“We consider things like geographic proximity, mutual interest, goals that the parents have, and experiences that the ‘Bigs’ may have,” she added.
All mentors also go through an extensive background check to ensure the child’s safety. Once a match is made, the BBBS professional staff offers relationship management, with regular check-ins to assess social, emotional and academic progress, while providing match support.
“For me, it’s the resilience,” said Crowe, of what she hopes each child gets out of the program. “That’s where the real power is…The real meat of it is when kids are doing better in school, or their relationship with their mom is better, or it’s just when life’s curveballs happen – somehow these kids are better able to navigate it because they have this relationship.”
Local resident Amanda Rodriguez has been mentoring Khaliha, 14, for about two and a half years now.
“I love being a positive influence in a child’s life,” said Rodriguez. “Before becoming a Big Sister I was a little apprehensive about it and wondered if I would enjoy it. I decided to do it because I wanted to make a difference, and I knew I would ultimately feel good about it. I can say that after two years, I thoroughly enjoy our time together and I think she likes spending time with me, too. I hope that Khaliha looks up to me as a positive role model in her life and that, in some way, she feels stronger about her future because of our relationship.”
The benefits of one-on-one mentoring often last far longer than the child’s participation in the program. El Naguib, now 19, was a little sister for 11 years and currently works part-time in the BBBS of the Lowcountry office. She will be heading off to start school at the College of Charleston this month.
“Madeline, my mentor, is a part of my family,” she said. “We moved down here away from all of our family and Madeline just absolutely stepped up and became part of it. She invited us to all of her family Christmases, and Thanksgivings, and Fourth of July parties…Without Madeline, life would be really, really lonely.”
There are countless success stories like El’s, added Crowe. The boy who wasn’t doing his homework who suddenly takes an interest because he knows his Big Brother will ask him about it. The teen who got into trouble with the law - when his mother was unable to make it to his probation hearing his Big Brother stepped in to vouch for him. He never re-entered the criminal justice system and is now grown, with a job and a family of his own. For Crowe, those outcomes, and thousands of others, make it all worthwhile.
“That’s the power of the program,” she said.
Regionally, one in four children are in need of a mentor. For more information on becoming a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lowcountry, visit www.bbbslowcountry.org or call (843) 480-4776.