Big Friends Little Friends mentoring program builds lasting bonds
Article Date: June 27, 2014
From The Fall River Spirit
By Phil Devitt
Mary O’Neil loves listening to the classics in her car. Her friend, Tay-Lyn? Not so much.
“She’s always listening to her tapes and humming her old songs,” Tay-Lyn said.
“It’s Motown, OK?” O’Neil shot back with a smile.
“Well, I like young music,” Tay-Lyn said. “One Direction. Katy Perry.”
O’Neil laughed, rolled her eyes and buried her face in her hands. She’s been going back and forth with Tay-Lyn like this since 2011, when the two were paired up in Family Service Association’s Big Friends Little Friends mentoring program.
Timid at first, Tay-Lyn has grown into a self-assured 11-year-old with dreams of one day joining the New England Patriots and being a quarterback with Tom Brady. If that happens, she plans to take O’Neil — an assistant district attorney in Bristol County — along for the ride.
“I’m staying with Mary until I’m 20,” she said confidently. “We’re gonna have a long run.”
Tay-Lyn looked at her Big Friend, seated next to her in Family Service Association’s downtown Fall River headquarters, and nodded.
“We have a best-friend relationship,” she said.
Ramona Turcotte, longtime Big Friends Little Friends coordinator, views O’Neil and Tay-Lyn as a success story — one she would like to see duplicated with more matches. The program, Turcotte said, is always looking for adults who want to be role models to Greater Fall River’s young residents.
Big Friends spend at least three to five hours a month with Little Friends, doing the things friends normally do together — talking, laughing, eating and playing. Mentors are matched with children based on mutual interests and overall compatibility, and make at least a one-year commitment to ensure a stable relationship.
“We admire the parents, the grandparents, who come to our program to say, ‘My child needs somebody besides me,'” Turcotte said. “That takes a lot. We honor the parents; they’re wonderful. And as for the volunteers, I am thrilled to have so many people in my orbit here. Every day, I am just stunned.”
Turcotte said she wants the mentors to grow from the experience just as much as the mentees. That has been the case with Richard Boucher, a retired machinist, and his Little Friend, Mason, a 9-year-old with plenty of questions about the world: Where was the first police department? How do fish sleep?
“Mason keeps me on my toes,” said Boucher, who researches the answers if he doesn’t know them firsthand. “I am earning my stripes.”
Boucher was matched with Mason, his first Little Friend, two years ago. The father of two grown children and grandfather of three said he wanted to help because he “had it pretty good” all his life and was determined to pay it forward.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “I had a solid foundation with two great parents and a good family when I was growing up. It just eats me up to see these kids who don’t have anything. This program rubbed be the right way. I wanted to have an impact on someone and maybe leave a legacy so that when I die, I feel good about myself.”
One of Mason’s biggest accomplishments since the friendship blossomed was conquering his fear of the swing set. Boucher showed his pal how to swing and taped the moment for Mason’s mother.
“It gives me a little confidence to say I finally did it,” Mason said. “I was happy. I smiled.”
“Now Mason goes higher than me,” Boucher said.
O’Neil, too, has learned that little moments have the biggest impact.
“Some people think ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching, but the inexpensive stuff is just as good as anything else,” she said.
Mentors can stick with their matches — who are ages 7-14 at the start — through high school, but by then, the bonds they have built are often too strong to break.
“In the program or not, you’re always going to be my buddy,” Boucher told Mason. “Don’t you worry about that.”
Phil Devitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (508) 979-4492.
Myth: Mentors are surrogate parents.
Truth: Mentors are friends and role models, and are not meant to replace parents or play parenting roles.
Myth: Being a mentor means spending a lot of money.
Truth: Mentors do not have to spend any money on mentees. Big Friends Little Friends also offers free bimonthly group activities for matches.
VOLUNTEER OR REFER A CHILD: Family Service Association, 101 Rock St., Fall River, MA, 02720. (508) 678-7542. email@example.com. www.frfsa.org.