Gang violence, failing schools, teen pregnancies, high school dropouts. All of these issues are becoming more and more common every day. And while some may blame society for these social issues, one organization believes change come from individuals making a difference.
The Big Brothers and Sisters Organization of Hudson, Essex and Union counties held a meeting Oct. 11 at McIntyre Hall at St. Peter’s University to inform and recruit Saint Peter’s students as mentors.
“It was truly a blessing to see that many people show up who wanted to simply become mentors to kids and wanted to do more,” said President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Carlos Lejnieks. “It really speaks to the student body of Saint Peter’s to have that kind of level of commitment.”
The Big Brothers and Sisters organization is one of the oldest and largest mentoring organizations for young adults in the United States. The purpose of this organization is to help children reach their full potential through relationships with older mentors who can guide them.
National research shows that these positive relationships between a child and their Big Brother, Big Sister mentor have had a tremendous effect on the children’s lives. This program has helped children gain enough confidence to be more involved in school and reach out to their families about personal issues.
46% of these children are less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27% are less likely to begin drinking alcohol and 52% are less likely to skip school, according to Making a Difference: An Impact Study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Carlos Lejnieks was asked to take the position of President and CEO four years ago when the program was close to failing.
“I was approached by the board to help turn the agency around,” said Lejnieks. ”It was about to close its doors and they were seeking a new leader to make it happen. After a search process they asked me to be the CEO. They only had 100 kids in their program at that point and they knew that they had a lot of work [yet] to do. They wanted someone who connected in the community but then also who can grow the operation despite the fact that we were very small at that point; and financially there were all sorts of challenges.”
The agency was first based in Newark and later expanded to Jersey City three and half years ago to work with its very first partner, Saint Peter’s College.
“We reached out to Saint Peter’s because one of my board members is a Saint Peter’s grad and he connected us to the president,” said Lejnieks. “After what was just initially a meeting turned into a very dynamic conversation about what Saint Peter’s is all about and what we’re all about. We found out that there is a lot in common with the mission of Saint Peter’s as well as our mission to do good.”
“Saint Peter’s speaks about service, social giving, and giving back and we are in that business as well. We offered the opportunity to help manifest that good intention that Saint Peter’s has.”
After handing out flyers and visiting classrooms to inform students about the organization, approximately 180 students attended the information session during the common lunch hour and 57 have been processed so far to become mentors while another 60 are waiting their turns.
“Students at Saint Peter’s want to give back and they really have a heart and we offered
them the opportunity to learn more about doing that,” said Lejnieks.
After the interview and background check process, students who are chosen to become mentors will be matched with a student in the local Jersey City public school, P.S. 17. “Bigs” and “Littles” (meaning mentors and students) are matched based on preferences and personalities. For one hour a week, Bigs will meet with their Littles and participate in different activities to get to know each other. Site-based meetings also occur once a week in schools, libraries and community centers.
“One of my good friends who lives in Hoboken and mentors a child in Jersey City literally every week has that time carved out on a Saturday and he goes and he tosses the football around with his ‘little’ brother and his little brother loves it!,” said Lejnieks.
An important issue was touched upon in the meeting when principal of P.S. 17, Joseph
Brensinger spoke about how many students are part of single family homes and are growing up with only mothers, aunts and grandmothers to look up to. He created a fraternity called T.-B.A.M. (To Be a Man) for his male students. He teaches the boys how to put on ties and they are given responsibilities like keeping the cafeteria tidy and looking after their younger classmates. Not only are these children growing up in single family homes, but the young men in the organizations are being waitlisted because the number of male mentors is very low. This is not just an issue for the agency, but a national issue; meaning more men need to step it up and become role models.
“At the end of the day, it’s a very simple thing. We just need access to more men to be able to tell them, ‘Hey, you don’t have to change your life to change his’,” said Lejnieks.
With an estimated amount of 3,200 students in Jersey City public schools and 1,300 in P.S. 17, Big Brothers, Big Sisters needs a great number of volunteers to continue their success. For those who cannot give one hour of their day a week for a month, you can also help by recruiting and informing those who can. As a non-profit organization, donations are also helpful; every dollar counts.