Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors make a big difference in lives

Yolanda Armstrong owes much to the people who mentored her in her youth. Her elderly grandparents tried their best to raise her, but it was the family down the street that took an interest in her and guided her. And she speaks loudly and clearly on the importance mentoring had on her.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for people who mentored me, even though I didn’t participate in Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Armstrong, the president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland affiliate of that organization. “I was a ‘we baby.’ So many people had invested their time in me so I didn’t become a statistic like other girls in my neighborhood.”

Armstrong was able to attend Ohio University and earn a degree — despite her high school guidance counselor’s conclusion that she wasn’t college material. She didn’t want to accept that judgment and made it her mission to believe in herself.

“Who would’ve thought many years later that I would run one of the largest mentoring programs in Cuyahoga County? I was offered jobs in other major cities, and I told them I wanted to come to Cleveland because I wanted to give back that which was given to me,” she says.

“You might say, I’m a poster child!”

The experience in her youth and her background of 24 years in social service administration and leadership serves Armstrong well. She knows what it is like for a young person to lack self-esteem and to turn that around into healthy self-esteem. That is the goal of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“We are about creating that vision for our young people, that they can succeed,” she says. “They must have hope, the belief they can accomplish something and that they’re able to attain that and be inspired through our mentors and staff.”

How mentoring works

The organization, which is observing its 60th anniversary in Cleveland this year, serves about 450 families in Cuyahoga County. Volunteers from the corporate and private sectors, churches and individuals give four hours a month minimum to a child that has been identified as a Little. Mentors are called Bigs, and people are always sought who want to have an impact on a child’s life.

Bigs and Littles are matched for similar preferences, such as both being sports fans. Many go bowling, try paintball, and/or play basketball, volleyball or ice hockey together. The majority of the youths are from low-income households or single-parent households. There is a waiting list since it takes time to match Bigs and Littles.

“The goal is to keep these kids out of trouble, but also to give them a life-changing experience of friendship,” Armstrong says.

“Most of our matches stay together 23 months or longer. That’s what makes our program different from other mentoring programs that may have popped up in the last several years,” she says.

Of former Littles surveyed, 67 percent agreed that their Big played a role in their decision to attend college, and 83 percent agree that their Big instilled values and principles that have guided them through life.

Connection with the community

Like many nonprofit organizations, Big Brothers Big Sisters is constantly seeking funds. The group receives some government funding as well as support from foundations. Four fundraisers are held during the year, and a Young Professionals Association allows younger executives from area businesses to help raise funds and find mentors.

A Community Connectors grant from the state of Ohio supports the Cleveland Coders mentoring program at Richmond Heights schools. This program was started last year under Armstrong’s leadership.

“We have mentors who come in and work with the kids with their computer coding activities, their school work activities and every day during the week, except for Wednesdays,” she says.

A federally-funded program called Amachi provides adult mentors for children whose parents are in prison.

“I love this program because when I first started last year, I received a letter from a man who was so happy that his son was in this program because he didn’t want his son to end up like him,” Armstrong says. “We are making strides with the kids whose parents are in prison and to know that we can get volunteers to support these kids has just been awesome.”

How to reach: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland, (216) 621-8223 or www.wementoryouth.org

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland’s 60th Anniversary “Denim & Diamonds” Celebration will take place May 12 at The Corner Bar at Progressive Field. To learn more, visit www.wementoryouth.org. To register, visit http://bit.ly/1SVs5AL