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Bridging Communities

Posted On April 4, 2021

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cashiers and Highlands

By Dawn Liles 

Photos by Danielle Hernandez

Helping all children to grow and flourish is one of a community’s most consequential and meaningful responsibilities. Each community on the plateau has its own unique mix of parents, children, teachers and caring adults who work together to positively influence the youth in their towns.

But in certain situations, sharing resources across the plateau just makes sense. That was the thinking behind the merger late last year of the Highlands Big Brothers Big Sisters Council (BBBS) with the Cashiers Big Brothers Big Sisters Council. The main goal of the two councils is to match a caring local adult or high school-aged mentor with a 6-to-14-year-old child, providing the child with new, life-enriching experiences.

The councils had been operating separately but with one program coordinator, Danielle Hernandez. “It made a lot of sense to not duplicate our efforts when the two communities are so close in proximity. One of the biggest things I seek to do is to build bridges between communities and serve more kids in our area. This merger has allowed us to do that.”

The two former advisory council chairs of the Highlands BBBS and the Cashiers BBBS agree. “We’ve literally doubled our brainpower,” said council leader, Ricky Siegel, who formerly served as the council chair for Highlands BBBS. “Two heads are better than one and both councils have already learned something from each other. We have a wonderful team of movers and shakers in place and we are 100% self-sustaining due to the council’s fundraising efforts.” 

Donations are always welcome, but the organization’s greatest need is for additional people to train as mentors to kids. Currently, there are 17 Bigs (mentors) matched with 17 Littles, but ten children are on the waiting list for Bigs. Each Big and Little get together approximately twice a month for two to four hours at a time. 

Hernandez works diligently in conjunction with the parents of each Little to find the best match. She has a background in teaching and said she finds nothing more rewarding than working with kids. “What I love about this job is I have a much different interaction with the families than what I was able to have as a teacher. I have a lot closer connections and a lot of love and support from the parents and the kids.”

And the positive feelings extend to the council members as well. “Danielle goes above and beyond her role to make relationships so special,” said BBBS advisory council chair, Nancy Albers. “She’s become quite a support person on her own for the families, so that’s wonderful to see.”  

Albers got involved with the program several years ago as a Big to a 10-year-old girl. One of her best memories with her Little was a carefree afternoon paddleboarding on Lake Glenville. Her Little was having a tough time standing up on her board, but Albers kept encouraging her, and after several attempts, she was able to stand. They paddled around awhile, sat down on their boards and just drifted around the lake. “We ended up having a really meaningful discussion about not giving up, which made the whole adventure even more worthwhile.”

Spending just a few hours a month with a child can have a profound effect. According to the BBBS website, when compared to their non-mentored peers, Little Brothers and Little Sisters are 52% less likely to skip school and 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs, and there are so many other immeasurable benefits that Littles will experience from having a consistent and caring adult in their life including higher self-confidence and personal aspirations.

There are two ways mentors can get involved: either site-based, at the child’s school, or community-based, which allows Bigs and Littles to explore other interests like hiking, throwing a Frisbee at the park or just getting a Coke together. 

At this time, Highlands and Cashiers are the only communities on the plateau with a BBBS program. But Hernandez has had calls from parents in neighboring communities like Franklin and Sylva who would love to pair their child with a Big Brother or Sister. “We’re hoping some people in those communities will put together a council as well and start programs there,” said Siegel. “The need for mentors is great. Time spent with these kids is one of the most valuable things we can offer.”  

To enroll a child, become a mentor or find out more information, contact BBBS program director, Danielle Hernandez, at 828-399-9133 or go to their website, www.bbswnc.org.