PACIFIC COUNTY — When Long Beach Police Department Officer Josh Lefor walks into Long Beach Elementary School each week, his presence is undeniable.
The kids watch in awe as Lefor, often dressed in uniform, makes his way into the school. Every visit, kids walk up to him in hopes Lefor will spend time with them.
But Lefor isn’t there to spend time with all the kids, although he makes an effort to give them attention. He’s instead there to spend time with one student: his little brother.
Lefor is a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, meaning each week he dedicates one hour to spending focused one-on-one time with a local student, known as his little brother.
“I don’t think adults really understand how much impact someone who’s not a child’s family member can have on them,” Lefor said. “Even as kids, we all understand that our parents are stuck with us. So when they spend time with us, it’s great. But when someone who doesn’t have to spend time with us chooses to, it really makes an impact on everyone.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters mostly serves kids who come from low-income and single-parent households. In Pacific County, the program is struggling to find volunteers to pair with kids.
More than 35 kids are on the program waiting list in south county, according to Robyn Handley, program manager. Some kids have been on the waitlist for over a year and a half.
“I just don’t have the number of volunteers needed to be able to provide mentors for all of those kids,” Handley said. “It’s hard to not be able to serve every kid who applies.”
On top of the waitlist, Handley gets about four referrals each week for kids who would like to have a mentor.
“I don’t have that amount of mentors applying each week,” Handley said. “We need more people to help our kids.”
South county kids served by Big Brothers Big Sisters attend Ocean Beach and Naselle Grays-River school districts. Handley wants to boost the number of adult volunteers for both school districts, but especially for Ocean Park Elementary School.
“With the way the schools are reshuffled, most of our high school volunteers are being directed over to Long Beach because it’s a much easier drive for them,” Handley said. “About 75 percent of the kids on the waiting list are from Ocean Park.”
Who can be a mentor?
“We really like anyone and everyone,” Handley said. “We’re really just looking for people who want to make a difference in the life of a kid, and help fill some of the enormous need we have.”
Mentors of all mobility types and ages are encouraged to join the program. In Pacific County, mentors range from age 14 to 71.
Peninsula resident Robin Hanna joined Big Brothers Big Sisters in Arizona as a mentor in the late 90s. At the time, she was 35 years older than her student mentor, Ingrid. At first, she was worried Ingrid, who was in seventh grade, would want a younger mentor.
“I didn’t think I had anything to offer,” Hanna said. “It’s not about how old you are; it’s about how big your heart is.”
Thinking about her grandparents and the positive impact they had on her life helped Hanna become more comfortable with the age difference.
“Mentors come in all shapes, sizes and ages,” Hanna said. “There’s no age limit to make a difference in a child’s life. Any age gap completely disappears because you can talk to them about whatever matters to them.”
Hanna is still in contact with Ingrid. Since the two were paired, Hanna has been with Ingrid through major life events such as her graduation and wedding. The two have dinner plans for December, and still make a point to see each other and connect regularly.
“We can all think of that person who mentored us,” Hanna said. “This program gives us the opportunity to be that person for someone else.”
How the program helps kids
In Naselle and Ocean Beach, program mentors and educators have seen improvements in the kids’ behavior and academics.
“Just having an hour with older kids tremendously impacts the younger kids,” said Naselle school counselor Justin Laine. “The kids are glowing when they get to have time with the older kids.”
In Naselle, the longer the program goes on, the more older students ask to volunteer as mentors. The program has helped not only the kids and mentors but Laine himself, as he’s Naselle’s only full-time school counselor.
“It’s a great comfort that these kids, who I reach out to whenever I can, are getting some additional one-on-one time,” Laine said. “Time and undivided attention are the biggest things you can give.”
In Ocean Beach, Handley said she’s seen similar success. When she first moved to Pacific County from Minnesota a few years ago, she rarely saw any of the littles get recognized for Ocean Beach’s self manager awards. The awards reward kids based on behavior through actions like demonstrating respect and staying on task.
Last year, two-thirds of the littles got awards for their behavior.
“We’ve seen a huge turn-around,” Handley said. “Having a mentor is part of holistic care for a child, especially one who may be struggling.”
Both Laine and Handley expect the benefits of Big Brothers Big Sisters to continue growing in Pacific County. The number of kids signing up for the program is likely to continue increasing as well. The question is whether the number of volunteers will increase too.
“There’s some kids who having a mentor would be that last piece of the puzzle and really bring everything together,” Handley said. “There’s a big need.”
Sign up to be a volunteer at https://www.swwabigs.org/be-a-mentor/.
To get in contact with Handley, contact 360-783-1091 or email@example.com.