Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia

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Most of our mentees, ‘Littles’ at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia (BBBS), live in orphanages. During a recent visit to one of our partner institutions, a guardian told me a story. She noticed that Andrei, who graduated from there last year, had been sitting on a bench outside the building for a few days in a row. She wondered what he was doing there, just sitting there alone all day. She approached him and tried to get him to speak to her. She noticed he was very pale and looked like he might faint. At first, he was reluctant to open up, but eventually he did. He said he came to this bench because he did not want to go home. In fact, he has not been home for a few days. His new, barely furnished apartment seemed lonely and frightening to him. Like most orphanage graduates, Andrei was provided with accommodation by the state, but he couldn’t bear staying there alone. He wasn’t spending nights in his former orphanage either. He spent his childhood and teenage years living in a group setting with other children, and the transition to independent living was very hard for him. He did not have anyone in his life, except for people he knew from his old life in the orphanage. That is why he kept coming to that bench. It was something familiar where he felt safe.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters, we believe that Andrei’s story could have been different if there was someone in his life who cared about him outside of the orphanage. A Big Brother or a Big Sister is a volunteer, a mentor and a friend who visits a child or teenager living in an orphanage once a week for at least one year. The idea is to provide the child with a lasting support of a responsible adult who will, ideally, become a friend for life. A mentor’s support is particularly crucial during the transition period right after the young person leaves institutional care and begins an independent life.

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Veronika started as a Little when she was 13 years old. Now 18, she recalls being a ‘shy, sensitive kid.’ She says her most memorable day with her Big Sister, Julia, was their first meeting. “After all the waiting, and questioning by the case manager with questions about my future mentee, I was finally sitting in front of her.” Veronika says that the most valuable thing for her in the relationship with Julia is that she can trust her with everything and not be shy or embarrassed. “There was a distance between us before, simply because she is older, the Big Sister, and I was the little one. But since I turned 18, I started feeling more confident and we are more equal. It is just a true friendship these days.”

Evgeniya is 17 years old and started college last September. She and her mentor, Olga have been friends for 3 years. “I have learnt a lot from my Big Sister. She improved my sense of humour – when I am with her, we often joke around. I think she improved my manners, made me more polite. And she helped me understand that there is something good in every person. I see a big difference between who I was before I met her, and who I am now”. Evgeniya says that her Big Sister became the first person to turn to with questions that she can’t find answers to, and Olga is always able to help. “She is one of the few people I really trust.”

Despite her positive experiences with the programme, Evgeniya feels that mentoring is not for everyone. “I’d recommend that anyone who is interested to join as a volunteer, to have a good look at themselves, to understand whether they really need this. Mentoring is very serious; it is not just fun or cool.”

Rafael joined the programme two years ago and was matched with a 16-year old Artem. Now Artem has already graduated and started college, but their friendship is only getting stronger. “I liked the idea of a long-term volunteering programme like BBBS. Big Brothers Big Sisters helps a child feel needed, understand that there is someone in the world who cares about him or her and who she can turn to – a mentor. A friend.”

Rafael says that being a Big Brother taught him to take responsibility not just for himself, but for someone else in his life and made him more compassionate. “I think that my Little Brother trusts me. He asks for my advice, shares his feelings and discusses his future. A particularly memorable moment for me was when he told me about his mother who passed away. I felt that the barriers between us were gone.”

Rafael sees his role as a mentor in helping his mentee to learn to solve practical issues and to cultivate his values – attitudes towards money, family, and community. “My Little Brother has already turned 18, so I talk to him as an equal, as a friend. I think it helps him feel like an adult and act with more maturity.”

Lisa decided to become a mentor last spring, when she heard about BBBS and felt that she “couldn’t stay indifferent when somewhere there is a child who needs a friend.” In May she was matched with 14-year old Ksusha. Both immediately felt that they found kindred spirits in one another. Lisa feels that in a short period of time they were able to form a real connection. Besides, Ksusha’s school grades have improved due to, Lisa believes, acquiring someone in her life who cares about her successes and failures. “My best memory so far is how Ksusha came to visit me at my home for the first time. She was so interested in every detail of the place, admiring how cozy it was. We cooked, tried different hairstyles and watched TV. Nothing special, but I could see that Ksusha has lighten up with happiness. Now whenever we are trying to decide what to do during our meetings, she says “Let’s go home!”

“Ksusha has taught me to be honest with her and with myself, because that is the only way to build trust,” Lisa says. She sees her role as a mentor in guiding Ksusha into adulthood and helping her adapt in the unknown world, become confident, choose a profession. “I want her to be a happy girl, so I am teaching her to appreciate little things, to find positivity in everything and to smile more often.”