Children in Central Ohio and across the state face some significant challenges, says Elizabeth Martinez, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio.
In Franklin County, 69,000 kids are living in poverty and in many circumstances, that’s generational poverty.
About 10 percent of Ohio children have been impacted by parental incarceration.
Ohio also has one of the highest rates of death due to drug overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Martinez says unfortunately, her organization is starting to see — more anecdotally than from a dataset perspective — more children living with other family members as a result of their parents being impacted by the opioid epidemic.
But she says the question becomes: how do you begin to tackle these issues unless you’ve lifted up the hood and figured out what are the root causes.
“If you want to change a trajectory of any outcome, you have to start with the analysis and figure out what the root causes are,” Martinez says.
Ohio is wrestling with how to stop the bleeding with opioids, for instance. Martinez says that’s an important conversation to have, but it’s equally important to try to get upstream and focus on the children that are being affected.
“We know that we could potentially be dealing with children that end up turning to drugs and turning to some (harmful) behaviors as a way to figure out how to cope with the circumstances of dealing with a parent that has been addicted,” she says.
Organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio are using data to mine into these issues.
For example, with more comprehensive data, especially from children in the Columbus City Schools, Martinez says the organization can see daily data records on attendance, behavior and coursework. That’s helped it inform curriculum for its school-based programs and given direction to the support and training it provides to both the children and the volunteers.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio, which has been in existence since 1933, doesn’t look the same as it did even just a few years ago. It is adding more wrap-around services for families. Providing social and emotional support for children isn’t mutually exclusive to enhancing academic outcomes, and family is critical.
“But that takes more resources, it takes more time,” she says. “We’re now working more closely and directly with families in broader ways than we have in previous years.”
Last year, the organization served more than 6,600 kids in one-to-one structured mentoring relationships through its offices in Franklin, Delaware and Union Counties and Springfield and its summer camp and environmental education programs at Camp Oty’Okwa.
It also has four subsidiary affiliates across the state. Those agencies have local boards, but Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio can take on administration and support work like HR, payroll, data and evaluation, marketing and PR, and some grant support.
Rather than increase the number of kids served, Martinez says the organization has had to step back and look at caseload sizes and the capacity of the professional staff. It can only do as much work as it can afford to do, and its approach today requires things like more training so Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio can be a trauma-informed organization.
“When people think about the relationship, they think about one-to-one support,” she says. “But what most folks don’t really know about the organization is the support that happens behind the scenes that we refer to as match support.”
The nonprofit’s community-based program always connected with families in the home, but now volunteers and staff are also stepping outside of schools — conducting home visits, visiting with parents, asking questions about what other services are needed in that home, and creating more opportunities to bring parents together. Martinez estimates Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio has a 60/40 split between community and school programs, with more on the school side.
“Not only are we connecting directly with the family to make sure that they are very involved with what’s happening in the relationship between their child and the adult volunteer, but that we’re also serving as an ally for that family,” Martinez says.
The nonprofit is still finalizing what its next steps will look like, whether that’s more partnerships or something else.
“We’re really just jumping in with two feet now in a very intentional way,” she says.
Martinez believes not only should Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio support the child, if it builds up the family, that in turn will build the community.
“There’s much more room for growth in this space,” she says. “There’s a lot more work that we still have to do in order to see the results that we want to see community-wide.”
The mentoring gap is a national trend. More children are growing up without the adult support they need in order to be successful as a result of poverty, opioids or parental incarceration.
“There are whole host of supportive services that children need, but as a foundation, that adult stable support is critically important,” Martinez says.