Published 25/01/2010 | 05:00
It's important for children to have good male and female role models in their lives but what happens if a parent is absent? That's where Big Brothers Big Sisters come in
EVERY week 35-year-old sales manager Morgan Evers takes his 'little brother' Josh on an outing: to a football match, to play pitch and putt or to the zoo.
They chat about their week and swap confidences, while Morgan might occasionally give Josh advice about something that's troubling him.
Nothing unusual about that -- except Morgan and Josh are not related.
Evers, a former nurse from Ballymun, is married without children, and 12-year-old Josh lives with his mother, his older sister and younger brother in Finglas, north Dublin.
However, both Morgan and Josh are members of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ireland, a national programme which seeks to set up friendships between adults over the age of 18 and children between the ages of 10 and 18.
Morgan became involved with BBBS in 2008 after deciding that he wanted to give some time to volunteer work.
"I saw an ad in a local paper and thought it could be the very thing I was looking for. I had three big brothers who looked after me when I was growing up. They kept me out of trouble and gave me valuable advice, so when I saw the ad it struck a chord with me. Maybe I'd have made some wrong choices if it wasn't for my big brothers!"
Following a rigorous assessment process similar to that for prospective foster parents -- garda vetting, references, two in-depth interviews and a home visit -- Morgan became one of more than 500 teachers, doctors, nurses, factory workers, gardai, engineers and others who act as 'big brothers' and 'big sisters' to boys and girls of all ages and backgrounds.
After a series of compatibility checks, he was paired with Josh Hughes.
"Josh's dad has not been around since he was young," says Josh's mum Lynsey, "so this programme gives him a chance to talk to a man about things that are important to him. He and Morgan get on very well together. They seem to like the same things.
"Josh's behaviour has improved a lot since he joined the programme. He had no male figure in his life. He has an older sister and his brother is younger than him so he really did need a big brother and it's done him a world of good."
Josh is enthusiastic too. "It's deadly! We've been to a few Dublin games and we've gone to the pictures and we play football. It's like having a big brother -- he's good to talk to and that.
"He tells me to keep up with the study and not be getting into trouble."
"Josh recently changed from primary school to second level and I try to have the odd positive word with him.
"There's a good chance that you can have a direct positive influence," says Morgan.
"Josh would kind of trust me at this stage so it's easier to have conversations about school or other things in his life that have a big impact on him. We usually meet once a week for a few hours, so it's not a huge commitment. Josh is also very good at football and I attend some of his matches, which I enjoy."
The BBBS programme, which began a national roll-out in 2006 and now covers 14 counties including Dublin, Galway and Cork, has been hugely successful.
Its programmes are delivered through two routes -- community-based matches, such as that between Morgan and Josh, and school-based matches, in which older second-level students mentor first years.
In all, the organisation, which is run under the aegis of Foroige and funded though a mix of local grants from the HSE, private donations and organised fund-raising activities, has made about 2,500 matches through both programmes since 2006.
About 500 of these were established through the community programme, which attracts children from a wide range of backgrounds -- single-parent families, children experiencing difficulty in school, children with siblings who have special needs, children in care or kids who'd like to make new friends.
Children are referred through the HSE Family Support Service, social workers, the gardai, schools and parents.
The growing popularity of the programme, however, has meant the demand for male mentors has doubled in recent years.
Men currently make up only about one-third of the mentors on the programme but BBBS hope that's about to change.
"The demand for male mentors has more than doubled since 2006 -- it's outstripping the demand for females," says national manager Paul Tannian.
A month-long national campaign to attract an additional 420 men into the programme will kick off over the next few weeks.
"The whole programme is activity-based. It's about sharing a hobby," says Tannian. "A lot of what we do doesn't cost money. This is about getting back to the simple things in life -- kicking a football, going for a walk or to the cinema or chatting over a cup of coffee."
Once people get involved in the programme, he says, they tend to enjoy it. Almost 70pc of mentors remain on for longer than their initial one-year commitment.
"I'd encourage other men to get involved in the programme," says Morgan Evers.
"I've said it to friends of mine. It can be tough to find the time but a couple of hours a week is not such a big sacrifice and after a while it becomes something to look forward to. I enjoy it as much as Josh does!"
Yvonne Devery, the eldest of six children in her Renmore, Co Galway, family, signed up as a little sister at the age of 15, after hearing about the programme through her friends.
"I really liked the idea of having a big sister, and they matched me up with Claire, who was in her twenties and worked in a bank. We used to go to town window-shopping or go bowling or to the cinema or for a walk. We talked about everything -- like about going to college and what I wanted to do later on.
"If I ever needed to talk about anything, Claire was there. We met once a week for about two years, after which she joined the gardai and moved away.
"I was nearly 18 by that stage so it was time to leave the programme but BBBS was one of the reasons I decided to go to college.
"Before I met Claire I didn't think about college but she encouraged me and now I'm studying to become a childcare assistant. I love college.
"I was also more confident and not as shy after I finished the programme -- I'd do it all over if I was that age again.
"One of my sisters is just about to join and one of my brothers has been in it and finished. My mum noticed how good it was when I was doing it so she encouraged the others to join!"
For more information visit: www.bbbs.ie or email firstname.lastname@example.org