The Bigs Return to Door County

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeastern Wisconsin once had a strong presence in Door County. But that once vibrant program waned during the last decade until there was only a single match left between an adult “Big” and a child “Little” in the entire county as recently as a year and half ago. That all changed when Door County resident Jeff Ottum drove to Green Bay and sat himself down in the office of Big Brothers Big Sisters new Executive Director Todd McPeek.

“Jeff made a compelling case why Big Brothers Big Sisters needed to better serve the Door County community,” says McPeek. After a few visits to the peninsula, McPeek found a willing partner in Patti Vickman, then the newly installed superintendent of the Southern Door School District.

Bigs and Littles enjoying a day at the Team Leadership Center.

“The kids in our program often don’t have as many strong relationships in their life as they should with caring adults,” says McPeek. “So they don’t dream as much as they should. Our goal is to provide children facing adversity with a strong, enduring and professionally supported relationship to change their lives for the better.”

Working with Vickman, McPeek and his team at Big Brothers Big Sisters launched a site-based program at Southern Door Schools last school year. The great advantage of a site-based program is that while there are still individual matches between a Big and a Little, they meet together as a part of a larger group. “The nice thing is you don’t have to come up with activities every week,” says McPeek. “You plug in to what’s already going on.”

In the first year of the program at Southern Door Schools, 20 matches were made between adult mentors and children from the community. The Bigs and Littles get together once a week, primarily at the school itself. But thanks to the generosity of several local businesses, they do lots of fun things around the community. “Sturgeon Bay Cinema hosted us for a free movie day, the Door County Baseball League donated tickets, and the Team Leadership Center has brought us out for a ropes course,” says McPeek. “The generosity of businesses like these has been tremendous.”

The demographics of the students participating in the Southern Door program are typical of the kinds of kids Big Brothers Big Sisters serves. Seventy-five percent of the Southern Door children come from homes with an annual income of less than $25,000. Forty percent of the kids are in single parent families, 15 percent have a grandparent as a guardian, and 10 percent of the children have parents who are incarcerated.

The mentoring relationship between a Big and a Little is far deeper and more enriching than almost any other kind of mentoring program. The average relationship consists of weekly visits that go on for 2½ to 3 years. In some cases, the mentoring relationship between a Big and a Little transforms into a genuine friendship that lasts a lifetime.

“I was a volunteer with the Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Mark Nelson. “It was a great experience. Years later he [my Little] ended up being the best man at my wedding.”

McPeek has ambitious plans for Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Door County. A site-based program is going to be launched in the coming school year in Sturgeon Bay schools and eventually McPeek hopes to have a presence in every school district in Door County.

“During this next year our goal is to double the number of matches in Southern Door from 20 to 40 and to create 20 matches in Sturgeon Bay,” says McPeek.

Children enter the program to become a Little between the age of 7 and 13 years of age – and that relationship can last through age 18 (and beyond) if the match is a strong one. There is an application process and considerable effort is made to ensure that the child’s interests and personality match well with their Big.

Unfortunately, there are always more Littles who are looking for a strong adult mentor than the number of Bigs that are available. “We’re looking for responsible people who care about youth,” says McPeek. “You don’t need to have a lot of money – in fact we don’t want people who will try to buy a young person’s friendship.” Big Brothers Big Sisters is looking for volunteers who have time to give.

Bigs range in age from young adults to senior citizens. “We’d rather have someone who’s 70 and young at heart than a person who’s 40 years and old,” says McPeek.

If interested in becoming a volunteer mentor and want to serve as a Big in Door County, call Big Brothers Big Sisters at 920.498.2227 or email Ann Nolan at [email protected]. There is a screening and background check process because child safety is paramount; but almost everyone who serves as a Big calls it one of the most rewarding experiences of their life.

If interested in becoming a financial supporter of Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs in Door County, there is a free informational breakfast on Sept. 4 in Sturgeon Bay. For more information call 920.498.2227.