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Big Brothers Big Sisters helping children and youth flourish

'Children are our future, and we need to invest in them,' says one Big Sister
A group of Big Brother Big Sister volunteers receive certificates for up to 20 years service, including Joan King (fifth from left) and Terilee Shisler on King's left.

When Big Brothers Big Sisters Niagara held their gala to celebrate a year of accomplishments, particularly the work of their volunteers, they had much to celebrate.

Addressing almost 200 volunteers and donors at their recent event at Queen’s Landing Inn, executive director Erin Graybiel said 2023 was “a monumental year” for Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies in Niagara.

Through their programs, the Niagara organization helped 900 children and youth between the ages of six to 18 years old in 2023, she said.

It was also an impactful year for volunteers gathered for the evening of appreciation, some of whom shared their experiences as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, in casual conversations before the dinner began and during the event.

Terilee Shisler was one of those volunteers. Her mother had been a Big Sister, often bringing her Little Sisters home, she said, and  “though I didn't fully grasp the concept of ‘matches’ at the time, I always welcomed them as part of our family.”

When Shisler turned 18, she signed up to be a Big Sister, and has had several matches throughout the years. After graduating from the child and youth worker program at Niagara College, she went to work for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and then with the District of School Board of Niagara as an educational assistant, before becoming a constable with the Waterloo Regional Police Service, where she is currently a constable in the special victims unit.

She talks of the many memorable experiences she has had with her Little Sisters, from the seven-year-old who at first meeting hid under a table, and after enduring several traumatic experiences in her life with her Big Sister to help see her through them, went on to become a young mom who still stays in touch with Shisler.

“She had faced so many challenges growing up that weren't her fault, and experienced situations no child should ever have to,” Shisler said.

After seeing how far this young woman has come, the good decisions she has made and the obstacles she has overcome, Shisler added,  “there are truly no words to express how proud I am of her.”

She has enjoyed many memorable moments with other Little Sisters, and continue to. Shisler is currently matched with an eight-year-old girl who lost her older sister to cancer, who now refers to Shisler as “her special friend.” The youngster has come to trust her Big Sister, and is able to talk about the sister she lost, and how much she misses her.

This young girl was chosen to be part of the BBBS Big Start program last September, and was given a $200 gift card to purchase back-to-school clothes and supplies at the Pen Centre. “She had never been back-to-school shopping before and was so excited to pick out new shoes and outfits.”

She has become part of Shisler’s family, coming over for dinner and playing with her sons, and “hearing them laugh and play together just warms my heart.”

“As a volunteer, you never truly know how much you are impacting a child's life,” she said. “These relationships that you make don't just dissipate when the match does, they continue on to be lifelong friendships.”

In 2021, Shisler received the Ontario Association Chief of Police Youth Service Volunteer Award, a huge accomplishment for the mother of two with a full-time job and other volunteer work in addition to being a Big Sister —  there is no doubt she is dedicating her life to helping youth in the community, including through BBBS.

“Having volunteers matched to children through the Big Big Brother Sister programs is so important,” she told The Local. “I am very passionate about working with children and youth. They are our future, and we need to invest in them.”

The one-on-one time spent with them “provides time to connect, to be seen, to be heard and it allows the mentor the opportunity to help that child build their self esteem, encourage them, support them and it develops a trusting relationship, which is what these children need.” 

To make better use of their resources and reach more children and youth, last year two Big Brother Big Sister agencies in Niagara unified to create a new entity, bringing together mentors, mentees, families, volunteers, funders, staff and board members to become one strong Niagara-wide agency, Graybiel explained at the Queen’s Landing gathering. The agency also works closely with a number of other organizations to be able to offer “wrap-around supports to children, youth and families.”

Some of those partnerships, she said, include two mall store front locations with Pathstone Mental Health at the Pen Centre and Seaway Mall, “raising more awareness of BBBS and leading to even more young lives being positively impacted.”

BBBS may be best-known for its mentorship of children and youth in the community, a program that makes it more likely they will “stay in school and pursue post-secondary education, develop the skills and confidence to overcome adverse childhood experiences, and have stronger sense of self-worth and mental health,” as Graybiel described.

But it’s not the only opportunity for mentors. Volunteers can also go into schools and help students from Grade 1 to 8. The school mentoring program matches those identified as needing additional support with volunteers who act as a role model and friend. Mentors meet with students at their school and engage in activities such as board games, crafts, sports, cooking, or as one volunteer says, just talking.

Common referral reasons for children and youth are lack of school engagement, poor school attendance, lack of self-confidence or self-esteem, lack of social skills or friendships, experience with bullying others or being bullied, and lack of respect for authority figures. Both Niagara school boards offer the in-school program, and each student who is part of it receives one hour a week during the school day, for the school year.

In 2023, the Big Start program was launched to help students who are being mentored be better prepared for a new school year, an initiative that provides the back-to-school shopping adventure with their mentor, such as Shisler enjoyed with her Little Sister, funded by supporters and local businesses.

Joan King, a retired teacher who lives in Queenston and volunteers with many community initiatives, became a mentor through the in-school program 14 years ago.

She has visited with many young students over the years in Niagara schools and in NOTL, in both boards, she said, and currently works with two students, one at Crossroads School and one at St. Michael Catholic Elementary School.

The teacher in her makes her want to motivate kids to stay in school longer and help give them skills to avoid “risky behaviour” that could lead them to trouble, she said, but mostly “to help make school a happy place, where they can enjoy life and feel good about themselves. Most of them are struggling somehow, at home or at school, and this program helps takes their minds off the struggles in their lives.”

Since retiring, King decided to focus on community involvement, and to be sure to include kids, “to give them a chance to learn about doing things for their community. Kids are our future,” she said.

She has one young fellow she visits who was getting in trouble in the school yard. “Now he’s focused on cutting grass for his neighbours and making some money. It’s good to see him going in the right direction.”

“Every kid is different,” she continued, “and all have different needs and expectations. I loved teaching, and I enjoy kids. This is another way to help them.”

“There are also many kids will mental health issues,” King added, “and this program can guide them in the right direction. It makes a difference.”

She finds it personally very rewarding, “in a lot of ways. I have this one little girl who runs to give me a hug when she sees me. She’s such a sweet kid.”

King was also able to take one of the students she mentors on a back-to-school shopping trip last September. She says the young girl loved being handed a gift certificate to make her own choices at the Pen Centre, although she quickly learned $200 doesn’t go far. Her mom came along, said King, and was able to continue to do a bit of shopping with her daughter when the $200 ran out.

“That’s a big deal for a girl who goes to school with kids who are much better off than she is.”

King said she’s never been sure how Big Brothers Big Sisters matches adults with kids, or what the students’ needs are when she meets them. She visited one girl for a number of years who was graduating from Grade 8 and wanted to continue seeing her in high school, so the agency made that happen, and King was able to see her during the girl’s lunch hour, when she wouldn’t be missing classes.

“My heart just breaks for these kids. You go in and talk to them, and get a feel of where they’re coming from. When they get older they seem to want to talk more. And you just want them to be happy at school, to feel confident and be able to learn.”