Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Big Brothers / Big Sisters Problem: When the Underprivileged are Overprivileged

When my kids were no longer a daily part of my life, I succumbed to Empty Nest Syndrome.

I moped a bit. 

When you've spent a large portion of your adult life reinventing yourself as a parent, and that role is suddenly removed, you find yourself adrift without purpose for a while.

And so a well-meaning friend suggested Big Brothers / Big Sisters.

Before I begin my complaint, let me be clear: I know of some success stories. But I don't believe that my experience was an exception. Rather, I believe that theirs is the exception. As my story unfolds, you may come to agree with me.

When I went in to the offices of BB/BS, I was very excited. I filled out the applications, went through the screening process, and was accepted. In a couple of weeks, I was called to interview my first prospect: We'll call her Keneesha.

I met the caseworker at the home of Keneesha and her siblings. All 8 of them.

Keneesha was 6 years old, and painfully recalcitrant. I hesitate to use the word 'shy' because the caseworker and everyone in her family assured me she wasn't. But she was having a bad day, apparently, and refusing to talk to me. Her sister "Kendra" did all the translating. 

Their mother sat idly by, saying very little. I found that curious at first, but came to understand why, later. "Lola" was a pleasant enough woman and seemed to be a good mother. She was busy with her brood of 8 and cash-strapped, as the father of most of the children was in prison and couldn't pay child support. The father of the 2 youngest was living with them but working a minimum wage job. 

Lola was, frankly, tired. I imagine she was tired all the time. And Lola needed a baby-sitting service, which is where BB/BS came in. All of her children were enrolled in the program.

As I sat on the couch in their living room, trying to connect with a child that refused to connect with me in any way, I became aware that Kendra was animated, helpful, and willing to step out of her shell. So later I asked the caseworker if Kendra had a Big Sister assigned to her.

"Welllll," said the caseworker, hesitantly. "We usually don't like to pass over one sibling in favor of the other."

"You saw how Keneesha wouldn't have anything to do with me," I argued. "But Kendra is a gem! If she doesn't have a Big Sister, I'd like to work with her."

The caseworker reluctantly said it was a possibility but she'd have to check with the mother first. Lola readily agreed, and the match was made.

We were carefully warned to initially buy the children no gifts at all. As the relationship built, you could buy them an occasional trinket only. BB/BS was aware that people can be taken advantage of, and they wanted this to be about the mentoring of a child and not the enabling of a family. I was fine with that, but still planned inexpensive outings that Kendra and I would go on. I looked forward to our first trip, which was to the park.

However, when I picked up Kendra, she had transformed from a happy, helpful child into an older version of Keneesha. Initially I put it off as the nervousness of being with a total stranger. But as this continued over several visits, I expressed my concern to the caseworker, who urged me to keep trying to connect.

So I did.

I tried humor. I tried exciting her interest in new things. BB/BS gets a lot of corporate sponsorships. Companies will give them free tickets to major events, so we would get regular emails letting us know what concerts or events had free tickets that were up for grabs for us and our "Littles." These children were being treated to better experiences than children who weren't in the program, and they were, frankly. being spoiled by it.

One day when I picked up Kendra for one of our outings, I had very special news that I'd been waiting for a week to spring on her. "Kendra," I said excitedly, "I got us tickets to Jack Hanna's Wild Kingdom next month!"  

"Ah," said Kendra, with her usual lack of enthusiasm.

 What would it take to impress this kid? I'd already taken her to a couple stellar concerts, got her backstage with the band, they took pictures with her and signed the autograph album I bought her. I'd taken her to regular parks, a water amusement park, the beach, and other events. Some of these jaunts were on my own dime, most were sponsored by the BB/BS sponsors.

"Look, Kendra," I said, frustrated, but keeping my tone in check. "What IS it? Why aren't you more excited? Don't you know what it is?"

"Of course I do," she replied dully. "My Big Sister from last year took me to that."

And that's when it hit me. These children from the BB/BS program are, for the most part, living a more glamorous, more exciting life than the children of everyday people who are not enrolled. These supposedly underprivileged kids are actually overprivileged. 

Lola knew what she was doing. Her 8 children were all being taken to Disney World, Busch Gardens, water parks, concerts, events, and more while she got to stay home and not lift a finger as we chumps spent our own energy, money, time, and gas to ferry her children about like royalty. And the kids were so used to it that they were, quite simply, jaded.

I called the social worker and asked when she had been planning on telling me that Kendra had a previous Big Sister. That's when I found out she'd had a chain of them. I assume they grew tired of being a combination of chauffer and royal court jester. 

Certainly *I* had.

I quit.

But although the problem is obvious (and currently being ignored by BB/BS) the answers are easy...though not fun... to implement.

Different tickets and outings need to be rated. Say that an "A" trip is to a major amusement park. Whether or not a corporate sponsor or a "Big" has sprung for the outing, each "Little" only gets one or two "A" outings a year.

Now say that taking in a local ballgame is a "B" trip. That child can have up to 4 "B" trips. They can have unlimited "C" trips to the library, parks, the beach, and other less-costly alternatives.

Additionally, the "Littles" can't just use the "Bigs" for fun. The "Bigs" should be expected to help the "Littles" with homework and other issues. Since "Littles" often come from less-than-ideal circumstances, there are issues like anger management, education, career goals (and more) which a "Big" may be able to help with.

Limiting the fancy goodies that these "Littles" get would force the program to be more about developing genuine mentoring relationships. It also would encourage the "Littles" to not take so much for granted. And finally it would free up the corporate sponsorships and monies to be used more wisely. And isn't that ultimately what Big Brothers / Big Sisters was supposed to be all about? Teaching responsibility and preparing children for the world?

If we want to solve the problems of the Entitlement Generation, if we want to fix the problem of self control in our youth, if we want to truly encourage enlightenment, it must start with our charities and in our homes.