When a Newton-based nonprofit pairing mentors with kids in need and adults with disabilities was forced to go virtual last March, staff worried they would see established relationships slip away and a decline in new connections.
But roughly one year later, enrollment numbers at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston are at their highest point in years, according to Laura Shulman Brochstein, clinical program director.
Shulman Brochstein said a surprisingly large number of people are reaching out during the pandemic to find a mentor or volunteer as one.
“We hear a lot of folks saying that ‘I’ve wanted to volunteer before, but I never made it a priority, and I want to make a priority now,’” Shulman Brochstein said. “They see that kids are struggling, or they see that adults with disabilities are really isolated.”
Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters focuses on two main program areas: one for children and one for adults with mild to moderate disabilities. Relationships often last until children graduate from the program at 22, according to Shulman Brochstein.
Its children’s programming, which creates one-to-one matches between adult mentors and kids aged 6-18, currently serves over 200 matches, Shulman Brochstein said. Mentors are typically between 21 and 35, but som e are in their 70s.
Through the Friend 2 Friend program, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs adult participants with disabilities with local volunteers. They host community events for over 170 matches, which shifted online last year.
“It’s really hard for folks,” Shulman Brochstein said. “A lot of participants in the program, their day programs have moved from in-person to online, and people just get really exhausted from constant Zooming.”
Despite increasing Zoom-fatigue, Brachstein said members and volunteers mostly have been open to the changes in programming.
The shift also allowed for new events — like a holiday talent show, which had long been considered but never planned — to bring people together virtually.
Matches are still able to meet in person, depending on their individual comfort levels, Brachstein said. Many took advantage of warmer weather during the summer, meeting outside and staying masked and socially distanced, before returning to virtual meet-ups as cases surged again.
“Matches will ebb and flow. The key thing for us is safety,” Shulman Brochstein said. “If a match wants to meet in person outside, we’ll work with them to make sure it’s as safe as possible. And if they want to meet remotely, we’re happy to brainstorm new ideas.”
In December 2019, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters — with a grant from the Massachusetts Service Alliance — began a pilot program aimed at connecting LGBTQ-identified youth with role models in and around Boston.
Shulman Brochstein said the LGBTQ program has received a “massive response from volunteers.”
“Normally, we have to have to pound the pavement for volunteers,” she said. “In the LGBTQ program, it was quite the opposite.”
So far, Jewish Big Brother Big Sisters has fostered a total of 13 LGBTQ matches, including a dozen children and one young adult enrolled in its Friend 2 Friend program, which focuses on adults with disabilities.
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