SIKESTON -- The oldest and largest mentoring organization in the country is expanding to offer its services to children in Scott County and Sikeston. Last fall Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri received a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant of $75,000 over a three-
year period. In this particular grant, the focus is on Scott County and Sikeston children ages 5 to 17 whose parents are incarcerated in a state or federal institution. "These kids are no different than any other child. They're kids who have the same hopes and dreams as any other kids. They just have a lot of baggage," said Becky James-Hatter, chief executive officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. The Big Brothers Big Sisters program, Amachi, aims to break the cycle of incarceration. Through the program, children of incarcerated parents are matched with Big Brother and Big Sister volunteer mentors. These volunteers are recruited primarily from church congregations or other faith-based organizations.
Losing a parent to incarceration is unlike any other loss, James-Hatter said. "Losing a parent to a disease, illness, war or accidents are huge and traumatic losses, but they don't carry with them -- on most days -- shame, embarrassment and anger," James-Hatter said. In Missouri, 60,000 children have a parent who is incarcerated in a state prison -- and that doesn't count federal prison or the local jail, James-Hatter said. Nearly 200,000 children have parents who are on probation or parole, she said.
"Typically, when a child loses a parent to incarceration, most don't get up the next morning, go to school and say, 'My parent went to prison last night.' For many, it becomes a legacy. That's why we see a high percentage of these kids -- about 70 percent -- in prison," James-Hatter said. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters, children gain a powerful sense of trust and love, James-Hatter said. "A volunteer can let them know: 'You didn't do anything wrong. You're great and wonderful, and you don't have to make the same mistakes and have the behavior of those who've made those mistakes. You can make choices in life,'" James-Hatter said.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri serves the St. Louis metropolitan area, Cape Girardeau County, Scott City and now Scott County and Sikeston. Over 300 children are served in the Cape Girardeau area market, James-
Hatter said. "We are so excited about the idea of potentially continuing to expand our services in Southeast Missouri. We have been in the Cape Girardeau area for almost seven years. ... So we're very pleased to be able to take this next step and serve Scott County and Sikeston," said James-Hatter, who has worked at Big Brothers Big Sisters for 20 years and in the eastern area for 14 years.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is in the process of interviewing candidates for a part-time position to oversee the Scott County and Sikeston area, James-
Hatter said. "Our goal in the first year is to recruit and match 25 volunteers with children," James-Hatter said. James-Hatter said the staff at Big Brothers Big Sisters Eastern Missouri's Southern Region in Cape Girardeau is also putting together volunteer recruitment strategies.
Ashley Barnett, senior program director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri's Southern Region, said it hasn't been decided if the program offered in Scott County and Sikeston will match kids with mentors through community-based, school-based or both methods. "We're still working on that," Barnett said. "It depends on the volunteer base that we're going to find there. Sometimes we find churches or businesses that will allow church members or employees to do this for an hour one afternoon a week. We haven't been able to find that in the community yet."
For right now, the focus is community-based, Barnett said. "We're talking to a lot of different service organizations in Sikeston along with local churches and church leaders to see if their members are interested in this project," Barnett said.
What will also help the program get under way is Scott County and Sikeston individuals volunteering to be mentors, Barnett said. "I think people think they have to be someone special to volunteer, and that's not it at all," Barnett said. "Six to 10 hours a month is what we ask volunteers to spend with the kids. You don't have to make a lot of money or achieve great things. Just spend some time with kids and listen to them and be a good role model."
All volunteers participate in an enrollment process by filling out an application, providing information for three references, completing a background check, participating in an interview and completing training.
A national study revealed of kids with mentors in Big Brothers Big Sisters, 52 percent were less likely to skip school and 46 percent were less likely to begin using illegal drugs. Also kids were more likely to get along with their family and peers.
"Mentoring works if you build a strong relationship between the mentor and child -- and keep them together for a long time," James-Hatter said. "... It's very common sense, and we're working hard to make it common practice." Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer mentor or needing more information should contact the Cape Girardeau office at (573) 339-0814 or visit the Web site: www.bbbsemo.org.