Big Sister Rachael Rademacher and her 7-year-old Little Sister Abby Erickson haven’t seen each other since March 8th, just a week before the coronavirus pandemic shut down their weekly meetings as part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine mentoring program at Camden Rockport Elementary School. But they aren’t letting social distancing keep them from staying connected, thanks to a pen pal program that is allowing them, and 176 other school-based matches across eastern and central Maine, to stay in touch.
The Camden Hills Regional High School sophomore says being pen pals is “keeping a sense of normalcy” during a very uncertain time.
“It’s been great to keep our friendship going this way,” Rademacher said from her home in Rockport after receiving a letter from Abby. “I love knowing how she’s doing, that she’s okay. Keeping relationships and connections during this time is really helpful for both of us.”
BBBSMM serves over 560 youth in Androscoggin, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot, Somerset, and Waldo counties through one-to-one youth mentoring programs in schools and in the community. With CDC guidelines of social distancing and school closures, the agency launched a #BiggerTogether campaign that allows Bigs and Littles to exchange letters and artwork to share messages of support and hope.
Unlike the agency’s community-based matches between adults and children who meet independently, school and site-based Littles meet weekly with high school and college mentors at their school or a partnering youth center. For confidentiality reasons, these matches do not exchange personal information and only interact at programs under the guidance of BBBS staff and volunteer coordinators. Bridging the gap during the pandemic is critical to the long-term wellbeing of Littles according to Gwendolyn Hudson, executive director of BBBSMM.
“Many of our Littles are feeling isolated; some live in poverty or unsettled households, or have families who struggle with substance abuse, and they are experiencing tremendous loss and loneliness,” said Hudson. “We know the difference a Big Brother or Big Sister makes in their lives. They are a caring friend to talk to, a guiding force, someone to turn to when life becomes harsh. The families of the children we serve will be some of the hardest hit during this time of isolation and economic downturn.”
In the first days of the campaign, the agency received over 30 mailed exchanges between school and site-based Bigs and Littles. Some youth sent email messages, while others drew pictures or sent hand-written letters. BBBS program managers reviewed all postal and electronic mail before sending to the respective Big or Little. The agency will provide matches with needed supplies in the mail, like paper and self-addressed stamped envelopes.
“We want to remove any barriers for matches to stay connected during this time of uncertainty and angst,” Hudson said. “So far, the campaign is being very well-received, and we expect it will just keep getting bigger.”
BBBSMM is supporting its community-based matches through frequent match support and is encouraging the use of “virtual meetings” during this time of social distancing. Matches are finding creative ways to stay connected. Big Sister Beth Enman, of Skowhegan, and her Little Sister Abby Washburn usually enjoy going to community events and games or doing projects together. Because they can’t see each other now, they are reading poems and books to each other over the phone and finding other ways to be together.
“This week we plan to paint two pictures, giving each other instruction by phone, and will send pictures of the finished paintings to each other,” said Enman. “It should be fun!” The friends hope to share their creations in person soon.
Recognizing that many children across the state are feeling isolated and would benefit by participating in the pen pal program, the agency is inviting all children to share letters of hope with Little Brothers and Little Sisters. BBBS staff will mail the letters to Littles across its seven-county service area. Messages and drawings can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to #BiggerTogether, BBBS of Mid-Maine, 66 Elm St., Suite 100, Camden, ME 04843.
Big Brothers Big Sisters one-to-one youth mentoring programs are offered free to Bigs and Littles. More than half of the funding for programs comes from the agency’s largest fundraising event “Bowl for Kids’ Sake,” which has been tentatively rescheduled for May and June in Belfast, Waldoboro, and Rockport. The four regional events typically raise $300,000 for agency programs, which Hudson said are at risk due to postponements and rescheduling.
“We are committed to continuing Bowl for Kids’ Sake events to celebrate our community’s support of the 560 youth we serve,” Hudson said. “Funding for our matches is critical, as we know our Littles need their mentors now more than ever.”
For current information about Bowl for Kids’ Sake dates, the #BiggerTogether campaign, Big Pen Pal Program, volunteering or donating to support Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine, visit bbbsmidmaine.org or call 236-2227.