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Big Brother Big Sister: A volunteering programme helping young people in Ireland

The Big Brother Big Sister programme is making a massive difference to the lives of young people in Ireland, writes Caomhan Keane. Here he finds out why it's such a rewarding relationship for both parties


Making a difference: Lee Casey, and Jimmy Ryan. Photo: Shane O’Neill Photography

Making a difference: Lee Casey, and Jimmy Ryan. Photo: Shane O’Neill Photography

Big Brother mentor, Sam Moorhead left, and Dylan Ellis. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Big Brother mentor, Sam Moorhead left, and Dylan Ellis. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Aoife Kelly and Fiona Power

Aoife Kelly and Fiona Power


Making a difference: Lee Casey, and Jimmy Ryan. Photo: Shane O’Neill Photography

For almost 120 years, the Big Brother Big Sister (BBBS), programme has been helping American children reach their potential through professionally supported, one-to-one relationships with volunteer mentors.

Twenty years ago the programme went international and three years later Ireland became one of 14 affiliate countries to match children in need of positive adult influences with men and women who wanted to give back to their community.

At present it operates in 21 counties, overseeing 600 pairings (as well as facilitating a further 2,500 in-school mentorships). A randomised controlled trial carried out here in 2012 has shown that having a mentor improves the emotional wellbeing of the child, as they learn to transfer the communication skills they develop with the mentor into their relationships with their parents, siblings and friends.

Since the volunteer is often third-level educated it sends subliminal messages to the child to think positively about staying in school, creating a sense of hope as they look forward in life

While they are also less likely to initiate drug or alcohol use and are more likely to make healthier life choices.

"We are looking for someone with an interest in the welfare of a young person," says Mary Lynch, who coordinates the Big Brother Big Sister programme for Foróige in Ireland, when asked about what kind of people they were looking for to volunteer. "We need a Garda vetting, and three references from people who have known them for a number of years, who we then write off to, to confirm their suitability. Then we do an interview and a home visit."

Warning flags for Foróige are people with a history of a lot of change says Mary: "People who didn't stick at anything for a lengthy period of time, be it college, jobs, or hobbies. We are looking for a stable background, so people with their own ideas who don't want to abide by our guidelines wouldn't make the cut. We need them to be positive role models, modelling positive behaviours in front of their mentee."

Volunteers are asked to commit for one year, to meet with a young person for up to two hours each week, doing activities they both enjoy. "It's not taxing on volunteers time, as they are meeting with someone they like, who have the same interests."

For the first six months the focus is on these shared interests. Then, in terms of the programme, the volunteer, parent and case worker will address the needs the child had coming in and what needs which may have arisen during their time with the mentor.

"If they are not enjoying school we would get the mentor to encourage them by helping them look at extracurricular activities around this topic, like getting a library card and looking at books together around a project they may have to undertake."

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The programme is unique, individually tailored to meet each child's needs.

"I was matched up with my little sister for five years," says Mary, who is based in Galway. "She came to Ireland as an unaccompanied minor and wouldn't have known the culture. So I helped her understand what that was.

"Another match had a boy who was getting into trouble in school. So he chatted to him and discovered he was staying up at night on the mobile phone and was then not waking up on time, arriving late, with no breakfast eaten.

"So they came up with a plan of action to switch off the mobile at a particular time every night. The Big Brother then spent time teaching him how to cook eggs for breakfast.

"Once all that was taken care of, he encouraged him to get into athletics to tackle his excess energy. He discovered he was good at javelin and represented the school in regional finals. Teachers started seeing him in a different light."

Foróige provides child protection awareness training so volunteers know what to do if any such issues arise, and during their Big Brother Big Sister training, Foróige walk you through any kind of issues related to your specific 'sibling' as well as making you aware of the supports they provide"

Occasionally friendships are broken off, usually because the mentor has to move away for work or if the 'little' (as the younger sibling is known) develops personal issues like moving into temporary accommodation.

While the stereotype of the programme is that of one for disadvantaged children, Mary says that is not strictly the case.

"For some young people there's no dad or mom at home and the single parent or guardian enrols them when the teenage years start, so that they can access the encouragement support and direction they, as members of the opposite sex, may not feel they can provide.

"Some young people might have a sibling with special needs with people constantly calling to check on that child, but no one is calling for them.

"While we also do have people on the verge of being expelled from school or getting involved in issues like petty crime. It's a mixture across the board".

Foróige are particularly keen to get more male volunteers to come forward. "We would really like to hear from potential Big Brothers in Galway, Sligo,  Donegal, Cavan Monaghan and Louth as we have many young people waiting in these counties. 

Those interested can log on foróige.ie/bbbs and complete the online inquiry form. A local staff member will be in contact with them to provided them with more information and answer any questions that they may have.


"When I was around 14, my stepbrother was involved with Foróige and I asked his caseworker about the Big Brother Big Sister programme," says Dylan Ellis, 21.

"She told me 'you get to meet up and go out with a mentor who keeps you out of trouble and off the streets, who'll help keep you on the straight and narrow. And I said, 'that's perfect for me, where do I sign up'.

"I was a wild kid, on the verge of going down the worst road you can think of. I felt I couldn't speak to my mother or father or anyone about all my problems. My friends wouldn't understand the seriousness of them."

All around his area, people his age were getting involved with drugs and crime, robbing cars and robbing shops. "I didn't want to be a part of that scene, I had better things to be doing than selling drugs."

So Foróige matched him with Sam Moorehad, who was 27 at that time. "Sam showed me how to have a good work ethic, how to behave and be well mannered around important people. To say please, thank you, to shake hands and make eye contact. Basic interpersonal skills I didn't know at the time. I was never shown how to talk to people properly, or to ask questions rather than rabbiting on about myself. He made me see that, for a young lad I was smart. And that If I got a job, to keep on the ball, be persistent and keep my head down."

He says that thanks to Sam's influence he is not the person he may have been. "I have my head screwed on. I'm determined to get a good job. I was a kid who didn't care about anything, anyone, even myself. I wouldn't bring my brother to the shop. But seeing someone go out of their way for me who didn't need to, made me want to be a mentor to my own brothers and my own sisters and my nephew.

"I was looking for something that was a little less selfish, somewhere I could make an impact," Sam says. With other charities and organisations, they are quite vast, it can be too hard to help someone. With BBBS you could make a difference with someone by focusing your attention on them. So that's what drew me to BBBS," he says.

Over the four years they were matched their relationship progressed and changed. "It started one-sided with me asking a lot of questions, but very soon he got more inquisitive about me and he got more comfortable with me, he trusted me. He knew I was always there listening to him," added Sam.




Making a difference: Lee Casey, and Jimmy Ryan. Photo: Shane O’Neill Photography

Making a difference: Lee Casey, and Jimmy Ryan. Photo: Shane O’Neill Photography

Making a difference: Lee Casey, and Jimmy Ryan. Photo: Shane O’Neill Photography


"I'm older and more mature," Lee Casey, age 13, tells me when I ask him what difference the Big Brother Big Sister programme has made to him. "I know more things, I'm more confident in myself and that helps me for school. I was really hot-tempered, but because of Jimmy, I can react to situations more calmly. We talk situations through and I see that sometimes when I overreacted I wasn't thinking."

For Jimmy Ryan, 27, being a Big Brother has changed his life. "The teenage years aren't the most fun times and I thought it would be a great thing to help someone through them. So I signed up for it, got more information, had meetings with a caseworker, and here I am three years later, in a new career, working as a full-time social worker."

Jimmy wasn't settled in the jobs he was involved with prior to Foróige. "I was happy, but unfulfilled. After getting involved with BBBS, I became a leader with Foróige and 12 months down the line it just clicked. I was enjoying this volunteer work more than my actual job. So I got a Masters in Youth and Community Work and now I have a job where I have great fun and get paid to give back and engage with kids.

For him, it's a 50/50 relationship, between the Big and the 'little'. "I'm terrified of heights and we were at an event together and I just froze up and refused to walk across the tightrope. But Lee talked me through it, encouraging me and supporting me to push through my fear. I could see that he had become empowered to make decisions, be resistant and think of others.

"To see him change, become more mature, more confident, to be part of someone's life as they grow has been transformative for me."




Aoife Kelly and Fiona Power

Aoife Kelly and Fiona Power

Aoife Kelly and Fiona Power


"The reason I joined up for the Big Brother Big Sister programme was to have something outside of the family that was just mine, something personal," says Aoife Kelly, age 15. "It's good to talk and know that there is someone there who will always be there for you, who'll put the time and effort in. Not every one has that, a person to check-up on them and make sure they are ok. It has helped me emotionally, physically and in ways I will never understand, knowing I always have this friend.

"I was very shy at first, we didn't know each other and it was hard for me to talk to her as I found it hard to put trust in anyone."

But as time went by the activities they did together brought about conversation.

"She introduced me to golf, which I didn't like and she taught me to play chess and scrabble. We're very competitive; we like to challenge each other. I'm taking Home Economics for my Junior Cert next year and I needed to learn how to cook, so we have been baking desserts and cakes together.

"We started off working on school activities, competitions, things like that," says Fiona. "Now we've been together for three years, we can just sit down and chat over a coffee. We don't need the activities unless there is something in particular that Aoife needs. We don't even need to meet up every week. We go with the flow. Talking is what is the most important."

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