Updated November 15
Walker Roman, 31, says his decision to become a mentor to 12-year-old Isaac Trance has been a rewarding experience through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod & Islands program.
“It’s been really wonderful,” Roman, an Oak Bluffs artist, told The Times.. “Something that I didn’t realize going into it was that the role of a big extends beyond just that one-on-one mentoring experience. Especially in such a tight community such as the Island, you begin to realize your role as a big is not only your relationship with your mentee, but with their family, and with their friends, and with the people you see regularly that are a part of their lives…you kind of get a different perspective on the community you’re already a part of.”
There are a number of littles — the name given to children in the program — seeking the mentorship of bigs. The problem is particularly acute with boys since the start of the pandemic, according to JR Mell, executive director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod & the Islands. The program provides mentorship for children, starting from ages 7 to 12, through volunteering adults of the same gender. According to Mell, the organization’s regional director, children can stay in the program until they are 18 years old.
“Once everything started to emerge, we saw the number of women sign up for our program just skyrocket. Specifically for the Vineyard, there isn’t a girl waiting for a mentor on the Island,” Mell said. “What we did see was the number of boys being referred to us grow until we hit a cap of 16 boys on Martha’s Vineyard, who haven’t been matched in about a year and a half because we just haven’t had any male volunteers come through.”
Mell said he is unsure why this disparity difference between men and women volunteers exists. He cannot narrow it down to a single reason, but there has been speculation during the organization’s board meetings, such as the housing crisis and the need to take extra jobs to make ends meet. The lack of male volunteers is a shared experience throughout the Big Brothers Big Sisters network, according to Mell.
Mell said the first step in unraveling the mystery of the lack of men volunteers is to advertise the volunteer positions. He said about 40 children have matched with bigs on the Island. The time commitment for bigs amounts to meeting with their littles for a few hours twice a month. Bigs and littles are paired up based on likes, interests, and similar backgrounds to help foster a positive relationship between the two.
“Many of the bigs and littles really enjoy exploring the Island during the off-season,” Mell said. “To do something as simple as that, and to know they have that additional person in their corner really helps to change the direction of that child’s life.”
As a big, Roman does many activities with Isaac, such as drawing, sewing, making comics, and more.
“I think the majority of our time that we spend is completely unstructured with a lot of outside time,” Roman said.
The program has been a mutually enriching experience for the pair, according to Roman. Roman has heard feedback from Isaac’s family members and from the Big Brother Big Sister network of how much an impact he has provided. Meanwhile, being in touch with a younger person’s thought process has given Roman a more curious mind as an adult and an artist.
Roman’s journey to becoming a big started at Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. Roman used to work at the Charter School as a classroom assistant, but left after a couple of years to pursue his art career. However, he still wanted to be a part of being a benefit to children. He ended up meeting a bunch of people who have participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. While selling his artwork during Tivoli Day, Roman ended up meeting Mell at a booth.
“It was a serendipitous aligning of all these different things happening in a brief period of time that made me go ‘ok, this is something I need to pay more attention to,’ and I really focused on it from there,” Roman said.
Mell also had experience as a big 10 years ago in Mashpee before being employed by Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“He noted the biggest thing that I did for him was that I showed up. That I was just there twice a month,” Mell said.
Mell said a mentor doesn’t have to be someone who can offer a lot to the child to be a good adult figure in his or her life.
“People who feel they don’t have a lot to offer tend to be our best mentors because those are the people who show up with no predetermined notions of how they’re going to make a huge impact,” he said. “As a guy myself, I had to get over the idea that I didn’t have anything to offer and that I didn’t have the time.” Not having pre-set expectations allows the adult to meet the child’s needs and allow their mentor-mentee relationship to grow organically.
Mell said there is no age limit for whoever wants to become a mentor, or big for a mentee, or little. Mell said one of the oldest bigs on the Island is in his 70s.
Big Brothers Big Sisters primarily serves under-resourced families, according to Mell. A couple of examples Mell listed were single-parent households and families who have another child that requires a significant amount of attention. Many of the children that are in the program are being raised by grandparents or noncustodial parents.
“The underlying theme throughout our program is that we’ll serve any child who could benefit and have a need for that additional positive adult in their corner,” Mell said.
Mell encourages men on the Island to volunteer as a big. A big needs to be able to commit to being a mentor to a little for at least one year. Mell said the easiest way to get started is to go to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod & the Islands website.
“There’s also an opportunity for the number of people who’ve moved to the Island and are working remotely and calling it home now to get involved in their community like this,” Mell said.
Updated with correction of Isaac Trance’s surname.