Big Brothers Big Sisters looks to expand local outreach

Last year, just three percent of Big Brothers and Big Sisters volunteers in the city hailed from the Bronx. The organization is trying to change that by expanding its outreach in the borough.

By Nomin Ujiyediin. Nathalie Joseph Jean, right, looks at a map of the Bronx Zoo with her mentee, Amaya Lopez, 12, of Mott Haven.
By Nomin Ujiyediin. Nathalie Joseph Jean, right, looks at a map of the Bronx Zoo with her mentee, Amaya Lopez, 12, of Mott Haven.

Four years ago, Lillian Pucha, now 28, was balancing schoolwork with raising three children in the Bronx. Her oldest, Brandon, was 7 years old, and Pucha wanted a strong male presence in his life.

“I really wanted him to feel like a little brother,” she said. So she contacted Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, a nonprofit organization through which adult volunteers can become part-time older siblings to children.

After exchanging phone calls with the organization, there was still no big brother for Brandon, Pucha says, so she called them back four years later. A spokeswoman for Big Brothers Big Sisters said in an email that the organization didn’t ignore the Pucha family’s request, contending that the family had “inquired, walked away and then came back.”

Brandon is now 11, and his application has just been approved, but a staff member told Pucha that the waitlist remains long and Brandon may still have to wait up to six months before a mentor is assigned to him.

Brandon’s stepdad works and his mom is busy with an internship and classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Above all, she says she wants Brandon to have what she didn’t. “I was a teenager, a teen mom, and I really didn’t have that guidance,” she said.

Pucha was one of many community members who attended an outreach event the organization held at Charlie’s Bar and Kitchen in Port Morris on a recent evening. Armed with a $400,000 grant from the New York City Council and the Department of Youth and Community Development, the organization is looking to expand its outreach in the Bronx by improving its relationships with community organizations and planning events. Its ultimate goal: to find and serve more children in more neighborhoods, including Mott Haven.

Brandon is one of more than 100 children currently waiting for Big Brothers Big Sisters to match them with a mentor. About 80 percent are boys, and 31 percent come from the Bronx. In the past fiscal year, only 74 of 2,180, or three percent, of Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteers citywide hailed from the Bronx, according to an internal report. 921 volunteers, or fewer than half, were nonwhite, while 916 were male.

In contrast, 1,109 children referred to the organization last year were Bronxites, more than a quarter of total referrals, three-quarters of them boys, said Diego Romero, director of community outreach. 95 percent of children served by the organization are black, Latino or Asian.

While mentors and children are not paired solely on the basis of race, Romero said that shared life experiences can often enhance a “match.”

“Our kids look like New York City, and so we want our volunteers to do the same,” Romero said. “It’s a really valuable experience, especially in the beginning of the match relationship, for there to be some common bond that they can build.”

Osterman Perez, an attorney who has mentored a 17-year-old for the past eight years, believes that pairing children with mentors of the same background can be helpful, especially if the children or their families speak a foreign language. But he doesn’t think it’s a requirement for a strong relationship. “Some of my best mentors, friends, teachers have been completely different backgrounds from me, and that’s actually been an eye-opener for me,” he said.

The organization considers diversity an especially important goal in the Bronx, where the majority of the population is black or Latino and many families live below the poverty line. But simply increasing the number of Bronx volunteers, regardless of race, can be a challenge.

Soundview resident Nilka Martell, who attended the Port Morris event, says the borough’s demographics makes it difficult for Bronxites to commit their time.

“If you’re an immigrant, you’re not going to volunteer. If you’re making ends meet, you’re not going to volunteer,” said Martell.

Earl Skinner, youth programs manager at The Point CDC in Hunts Point, attributes the lack of male mentors to a culture of masculinity that promotes materialism over altruism. “We measure success in terms of attainment of money or things. We don’t value success in terms of service,” he said.

Geographical diversity can also be a factor. “It’s hard to ask somebody who’s volunteering who lives in Manhattan to get out to Queens, the far end of Queens, or the far north stretches of the Bronx,” said Perez, who lives in Riverdale and whose mentee lives in Mott Haven.

With the new funding, Big Brothers Big Sisters is increasing its community outreach staff from two employees to five, as well as holding events like the one at Charlie’s Bar and Kitchen, to attract mentors and improve relationships with elected officials and community groups. Community leaders serve as unofficial ambassadors for the organization, finding potential volunteers through word of mouth and established local connections, said Romero.

“It’s really being able to be a consistent presence in the community,” Romero said. “And it’s having somebody assigned to the borough that can build the trust with the local residents.”

The organization says its next step locally will be to expand the responsibilities of its Bergen Avenue office, which assigns social workers to interview potential mentees and their families before matching them with a mentor. It will also look to move its interviews from organizational headquarters in Lower Manhattan to the local office and hire more social workers.

The end result, he hopes, will be an organization that can better serve children anywhere in the city.

“People may have heard of who we are, but they don’t really know what we do, where we do it, how we do it,” Romero said. “Even with a name like Big Brothers Big Sisters, it’s not always possible to get somebody to pick up the phone or return your call. But if you’re able to go to them, somewhere they’re comfortable, then hopefully the potential for collaboration increases.”

This story was produced in association with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange NY Bureau.

The story was updated on April 11.