Big Brothers Big Sisters hopes new center will spur program on West Side

Austin office to drive volunteer recruitment, with hopes of finding mentors for 130 more kids in the near future.

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Melissa Zammit (left) and Mia Naranjo Vera pose for a portrait Thursday at Columbus Park in Austin.

Melissa Zammit (left) and Mia Naranjo Vera pose for a portrait Thursday at Columbus Park in Austin.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

With a new center that opened Thursday in the Austin neighborhood, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago hopes to move toward its goal of pairing thousands more children with adult mentors every year.

The new facility, at 5463 W. Division St., will have space for volunteers to meet with young people and their guardians. It also will host volunteer training and recruitment sessions.

A side benefit: building name recognition on the West Side, where the group aims to serve 500 West Side kids annually within 3 years, up from 230 now.

“If you’re going to do community work, you’ve got to do it in the community. You can’t just come in and out of the neighborhood,” said Jeremy Foster, CEO of the nonprofit, which pairs children ages 7 to 18 with volunteer mentors.

The Austin office is part of the group’s grassroots strategy to improve volunteer recruitment. It needs more mentors to meet its goals, both on the West Side and across the region, where it eventually hopes to mentor 5,000 young people a year.

“We still are having a really hard time finding men, particularly men of color on the South and West sides. That’s what we’re working really hard on right now,” said brand strategist Kristine Brown. Mentors must be at least 21 years old.

That ‘Drive for 5’ campaign was launched by Foster in 2019, with the opening of an Englewood office.

Between Cook, Lake and DuPage counties in Illinois and Lake County, Indiana, the group now mentors 2,000 young people annually. 

In Austin, the group hopes to pair over 130 West Side young people with a volunteer mentor in the near future, program officials said. 

Melissa Zammit (right) and Mia Naranjo Vera chat Thursday as they walk on a trail at Columbus Park in Austin.

Melissa Zammit (right) and Mia Naranjo Vera chat Thursday as they walk on a trail at Columbus Park in Austin.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

What mentors do depends on what the young person and their guardians want; however, often it’s about getting them out of the house, which can be hard for some families. 

“Sometimes their neighborhood might not be a safe place to go outside and play or it could be because there isn’t someone that has the time to take them out and offer them different opportunities,” Brown said.

Melissa Zammit, 40, started mentoring 10-year-old Mia Naranjo Vera of Austin in April 2021. The cardiovascular researcher, who works in the neighborhood, comes from a small family and wanted a way to connect with more families.

“I wanted to share my experiences with someone who was younger,” Zammit said.

She picks up Mia from her house twice a month. Zammit figures she was paired with Mia — the first girl she’s mentored through the program — because they both love learning and being outdoors. 

They went to Brookfield Zoo recently and learned about giraffes. Zammit loves seeing Mia marvel at the animals.

“It’s fun — you get to perceive the world from their eyes,” Zammit said. “I’ve been an adult so long, I forgot that’s how someone could perceive the world.”

She’s also become close Mia’s mother, Virginia.

“I gained a little sister and a friend.”

The organization also has site-based mentoring for volunteers preferring more structure. In those cases, mentors and young people meet for group activities, such as arts and crafts or some sort of STEM project. 

Volunteers for site-based programs must be at least 18 years old.

The Austin office has space for those group activities, Foster said. It is above a neighborhood community health organization, and Foster expects to partner with that group to help boost volunteer recruitment. 

For now, there’s a waiting list for mentors; it can take over a year to be paired with someone. Foster wants that wait reduced to just months.

“Mentoring is nice and fun, but it’s also necessary,” Foster said. Instead, there is a lack of mentors across suburban, rural and urban communities.

“The reason for the fracturing is different, but the result is the same,” Foster said. Without proper guidance or mentoring, “young people do violence to themselves, one another, or often both.”

Anyone interested in helping should contact the group to learn more — even if they’re not sure if they’d make a good mentor, Brown said. 

“People underestimate what they’re capable of giving.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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