A little help from my Big Brother, Big Sister

The Big Brother, Big Sister programme provides ‘older sibling’ mentors to thousands of troubled children in Ireland. It is a rewarding relationship for both parties, but more volunteers are needed, says Elizabeth O’Neill.

A little help from my Big Brother, Big Sister

TO get to Summerhill, in Dublin 1, you walk down Parnell Street, with its African shops, hairdressers, bookies and Korean barbecues. All of life is here, and it plays out on the streets. This evening, the sun is hitting off the walls and the road. There isn’t much greenery to soak it up. It’s boiling. People are sitting on doorsteps, and leaning over fences, as the rush-hour commuters pass by. This is a place of hard surfaces and concrete and little space. The south inner city, where I live, is spacious and sprawling with greenery. Here, people’s lives rub up against the city.

Dylan Ellis is 17 and grew up in Summerhill. We are waiting at the Hay Project, a youth club run by Foroige, for his ‘big brother’, Sam Moorhead, to arrive. Dylan has been coming here for years, after school and at weekends.

It was here that Dylan heard about the Big Brother, Big Sister mentoring programme. His step-brother, Chris, was taking part and Dylan signed up with permission from his guardian.

I’d heard about volunteer ‘big brothers or sisters’ through American TV shows. But it’s a Canadian concept that has spread around the world and has been in Ireland since 2001. It is managed by Foroige, which runs 611 youth development clubs throughout Ireland. They have put out a call for more volunteers for the Big Brother Big Sister scheme. Volunteers give two hours a week hanging out with a teenager and providing positive support.

Sam is a 30-something who works n advertising, from Raheny, who heard about the scheme through his sister. It appealed to him, because, he says, “I was in another organisation, where it was hard to help everyone, but Big Brother Big Sister sounded like something that could make a difference to one person without trying to make a difference to loads of people”.

Sam signed up as a ‘big brother’ and had to be vetted, get garda clearance and provide three references. If you’re deemed suitable for the programme, you’re asked about your interests and are matched with a ‘little brother’ or ‘little sister’. Volunteers are asked to be available for at least a year, and the match is managed by a youth worker, who gives extra support and guidance.

Dylan remembers “like it was yesterday” the first time he met Sam. Dylan was nervous, and wasn’t sure what to wear, but says “me and Sam had a spark straight away, we were talking about football and who we supported.” To Dylan’s relief, he found out they both supported manchester United. Sam and Dylan were ‘matched’ for more than two years and they met up every week or two to play football, watch international matches and eat.

Sam says he if was ever unsure as to where to bring Dylan, there was always food. “I think we went to every hipster restaurant in Dublin,” Sam says. But talking to Dylan and Sam, it’s doesn’t seem like either was ever short-changed. Whatever the activity, Sam provided Dylan with a way out of the density of the city, some space and someone who’d listen. Dylan says he could talk to Sam if he was upset or angry and could ask for advice.

Dylan says: “I walked in here hoping to find someone I could look up to, hoping he’d be good and like football. And then I walked in and thought, ‘well, he looks like a footballer, but will I be able to look up to him’? So I gave it a while to see if I’d be comfortable and, after a while, it just felt like I knew him for years”.

In return, Sam learned about himself and the role of mentor, something he didn’t experience growing up, as he’s the youngest in his family.

One of the remits of Foroige is to build self-esteem and confidence in young people. Dylan acknowledges that he learned a lot from Sam. At first, like most teenagers, he was shy and wouldn’t make eye contact. Today, Dylan is friendly, confident and good company.

Having recently finished his Leaving Certificate, Dylan is hoping to get into Inchicore College, to study business and law, with further plans to go to DIT and then start his own business.

For anyone thinking of signing up to the Big Brother, Big Sister scheme, Dylan says “go for it, take part, it’s going to be one best things you’d ever do. You get to see new things, taste new things, and any time you go out, you’re going to go new places. Go for it, why not, it keeps you out of trouble, as well. It’s better than hanging around selling drugs, or drinking or smoking. Go out to your big brother and do something good, instead of moping around,” he says.

More information on the Big Brother, Big Sister campaign can be found at www.foroige.ie/bbbs

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