Campus Ministry continues their partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters to establish meaningful relationships between Fairfield University students and younger children, as well as build each child’s true potential.
Founded in 1904, the organization seeks to match “Bigs,” or mentors, with “Littles,” to create lasting effects on the lives of young adolescents. The Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentorship Program at Fairfield University aims to achieve that goal within Bridgeport schools.
“We work at [three] local schools where the social worker identifies kids who could be helped by having a relationship with a Big,” said Kathleen Byrnes, the Campus Minister for Community Engagement at Fairfield. “Our students travel Mondays and Tuesdays to the schools and hang out with their littles doing some activity or playing games.”
Matches of Bigs and Littles are established in the fall. Fortunately for the hopes of long-lasting relationships, Fairfield University students can be matched with their Littles for their entire collegiate career, so long as they remain in attendance at Fairfield.
According to Byrnes, Fairfield University currently has sixty students serving as mentors to Bridgeport students.
Before February 2022, the organization was divided into two Connecticut sections: Southwest, or the Bridgeport area, and Hartford. Just about a year ago, however, the divisions merged to create a state-wide Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, including all 169 of Connecticut’s municipalities.
This integration not only merged mentors but their impact as well.
At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Connecticut, the mentorship team is dedicated to “defend, inspire and empower the potential of Connecticut youth,” as told by their official website.
According to Program Director Shasity Rios, however, their main mission is to advocate for “their children.”
“We need to be connected and aware of the community around us,” she said. “We are not saviors to anyone. Our youth has potential.”
The job of mentors is to simply bring out that potential.
Mentors refer to their Littles as “their children,” and the group as “their family,” because of the astounding and authentic relationships that are created during the program. The pairs develop a true bond with each other, and within that bond irrefutable care and support are shown.
Being a mentor means recognizing that your children have the power to succeed, as well as stepping in when apparent gaps and challenges hinder that success.
Across Connecticut, over one thousand adolescents benefit from the mentorship program and its contributions. 94% of littles identify their Big as an important or impactful person in their life.
Rios did not hesitate to name both of these statistics a “great achievement.”
Moreover, the connection between Jesuit and university values, and the Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentorship Program, is a topic in which Byrnes expressed great impact, significance and community relation.
“I love that you asked about the Jesuit connection,” she said, “because our work engaging with the community outside our gates is how we bring to life our value of being men and women with and for others.”
As a Jesuit institution, Fairfield University and Campus Ministry work to uplift various, crucial values, namely scholarship, diversity, justice, truth and freedom.
The Fairfield University Mission Statement writes, “As a Catholic institution, we welcome individuals of all beliefs and traditions who share our passion for scholarship, justice, truth and freedom, and we value the diversity their membership brings to our community.”
By providing this mentorship to children who require aid, assistance or mere connection, students are fulfilling that honorable responsibility.
Byrnes further relayed a Jesuit quote that offers an extra push to their service.
“The founder of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps used to say we should be ‘ruined for life’ as a means of expressing that once we meet those in need and connect with them on a personal level, we can’t help but figure out ways to be involved,” she declared.
Apart from drawing out the best in their Littles, the program works to uncover particular skills in the children, such as communication and relationship development.
Big Brothers Big Sisters took a substantial hit with the Covid-19 pandemic, which noticeably affected their numbers within the program. Their merger in 2022 was, to some extent, meant to rejuvenate that loss of participation.
The pandemic also, however, left children without the social interaction they needed to fully develop. As a result, the program currently focuses on reigniting those social and relational skills.
“They are building skills that we may not see as that important, but we have seen that throughout the pandemic … kids cannot interact with people, develop relationships,” Rios explained.
Post-pandemic, 6% of Littles reported issues with depressive symptoms, which is a dramatic decrease from mid-pandemic numbers.
“We know our Littles are feeling supported,” Rios said, whether that support comes from after-school programs, community programs or one-on-one activity time.
In light of that statistic, Rios deemed the program “incredibly beneficial.” Improvements in self-esteem and self-advocacy for littles are additional criteria the program seeks to achieve.
Littles are not the only party who benefits from the mentorship program. Both Byrnes and Rios emphasized the ways in which Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentorship Program provides their mentors with not only a learning experience but a chance to figure out their own identity.
Oftentimes, this program is not at all what mentors come in thinking it will be.
“I’ve had Bigs come into this program thinking they are going to change the world,” Rios said. Then, a Little faces specific challenges or discloses things happening at home, and the mentors hold a completely new revelation.
“This child has a whole other world,” Rios said.
Alexa Fetaya ‘26 has been a mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters for six months. She described her experience as “one of the most rewarding and best decisions [she has] ever made.”
Because she grew up as the oldest sibling in her family, Fetaya always wanted a mentor of her own. While she volunteers at the mentorship program, she channels her “nurturing, guiding and charismatic” self for her new Little Brother, as well as every other little.
“I leave each program humbled and excited to see what these amazing children will accomplish,” she said. “They are all bright, energized, curious and creative students and it is always a pleasure to be around all of them.”
It is a program she looks forward to each week, and she adores the shared desire between Bigs and Littles to get to know each other. She noted that the kids especially look forward to their visits, and greet their Bigs with ecstatic hugs and cheers.
The mentorship program introduces Fairfield University students acting as Bigs to the community that they are serving. Byrnes points out the importance of community engagement, which she hopes will travel with students for the rest of their lives.
In addition, she hopes the program provides students a way to get involved with their community while “doing something they love.”
Through being a mentor, students have the chance to figure out later life goals or to fulfill an already present life goal. Many mentors volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters because they wish to replicate an empowering mentor they had as a child, or, like Fetaya because they know how it feels to not have one—and want to eliminate that experience for another child.
The mentorship program has recently added monthly dinners to their arrangement as well. At these dinners, students are able to reflect upon their service, connect with others and learn more about the work they are performing—all over a home-cooked meal.
Byrnes noted that their next dinner is on March 26, and welcomes all students to join.
Mentors receive training and are constantly being challenged at new heights. Melissa Novak, the Site-Based Program Manager of the program, extends vital support to both the bigs and the littles.
A vast desire of the Big Brothers Big Sisters team is to expand their impact. Rios describes the program as “super ambitious,” and emphasizes that any child who wants their help should receive it.
Rios is determined to bridge the gaps between individuals and communities, whether those gaps be racial, socioeconomic or gendered. The program works in multiple districts and continues to grow: but they are not finished yet.
Big Futures is a new program from the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, designed to provide high school graduates ages 18 to 25 the same support from their mentors.
The Big Brothers Big Sisters team is focused on continuing to help their Littles for as long as they can. They do not wish to leave anyone without the help they need, especially those trying to land a job after high school or college.
Rios shared the creation of a high school program coming next year, and the plans for a middle school program in the future.
Looking forward, Fetaya hopes for future field trips with the littles, and more involvement from Fairfield students.
Likewise, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is constantly looking for new mentors.
“If we have mentors raising their hand,” Rios said, “we’ll definitely get them set up in the program.”
This fall, Big Brothers Big Sisters held 21 employees from Fairfield University. There are currently two mentorship program locations open to Fairfield students: Bryant and Wilbur Cross. While Bryant is more flexible with student hours, Wilbur Cross hosts more structure, and students are welcome to choose which location they would like to volunteer for.
Additionally, the 2023 spring semester began with the launch of a Big Brothers Big Sisters after-school program. Rather than one-on-one meetings, this program is designed as a group activity where university students hang out with “a bunch of kids.”
Campus Ministry hosts dozens of service opportunities throughout the year that are also awaiting student participation. Similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters, these opportunities engage in strong community relations.
“Our partnerships have been developed over a number of years and are collaborations with local agencies that do amazing work in the community,” declared Byrnes.
To become involved with Campus Ministry’s service opportunities, Byrnes recommends completing the survey on the service page of Life@Fairfield. There, students can specify the types of service they are most interested in.
Big Brothers Big Sisters gives students a chance to be true men and women for others by putting those others first. Not only do they become role models, but they propose other options under, sometimes, the assumption of none.
Students interested in becoming a mentor can apply here: https://www.tfaforms.com/4849237 or reach out to Melissa Novak at Melissan@ctbigs.org.
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