- Richard Sitts
"Every child is just one positive adult away from being a success story."
Those are the words a mentor once said to Elysia Kiyija, program director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Oregon. They're words she now lives by.
"We're looking for people wanting to be that adult," she adds.
Big Brothers Big Sisters has recently undergone a shift, Kiyija says, from desiring younger mentors to seeing a need for older mentors. The organization used to focus on attracting college-age mentors, but found they tended to move around more due to jobs, promotions and so on, she explains. So now, the focus is on landing volunteers 55 and older, who offer "longer and better" benefits, Kiyija says.
BBBS asks for a minimum one-year commitment from mentors who can offer six to 12 hours a month. The requirements are pretty basic: volunteers must have lived in the community for at least six months, must fill out an application and undergo a background check, and come in for an interview so staff can best match them with a little brother or sister.
"A lot of people think that we're looking for perfect people to come on and be a mentor, and that's just not true." In fact, Kiyija adds, people with imperfect past lives can be the best mentors because they may have lived through some of the same troubles as the kids.
"They get consistency," she says, referring to children who may have people coming and going out of their lives. A mentor can be "one other person out there in the community who they can rely on."
Currently, there are about 41 kids, ages 6 to 16, on the waiting list, Kiyija says, but that number usually averages about 30 kids at any given time. Of those, about 80 percent are little brothers looking for mentors. There are now about six mentors on the waiting list, she says. Big sister mentors tend to wait longer for a good match. "We really try to focus on who is going to be a good match. It's not just first come, first served."
Sometimes, couples apply to be a match for a youth. In these cases, Kiyija says, "They (kids) get to see positive relationships. There's so many benefits."
Benefits spread both ways, she adds. "Time and time again I hear about how much they (mentors) get out of it. People like to give back. It makes them feel good. People often think of our program as where to send someone who's acting out, or a single mom reaching the end of her rope. But there are so many benefits to mentoring. Everyone can benefit from mentoring."
BBBS offers group activities for mentors and kids, everything from white water rafting to rock climbing. Otherwise, free or low-cost activities are encouraged. "Something that you'd already be doing in your life. It's just whatever you're doing, just add a kid into that."
Kiyija says most of the kids are in the 8 to 10 age range and can include kids being raised by grandparents, those from a single-parent household or kids in foster care.
Kiyija has her own little sister, a freshman in high school. Before they met, she says her little sister was considering dropping out of school, mainly because she was averse to doing a public presentation assignment. Kiyija helped her get over her fear and now she's back on track in school.
"Seeing the change in youth is so cool," she says.
BBBS serves the tri-county area of Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties. Last year the organization served 392 youth, about 75 percent of whom were male. Kiyija just passed her three-year anniversary with the organization and has been in the director's chair for six months. She started off with BBBS as an enrollment and match specialist, doing interviews with prospective mentors. "I feel that I know all about the program from doing it all."
Kiyija is a native Oregonian who considers Prineville home. She has a degree in international public policy and administration. Before moving to Bend she worked for two years in Uganda as co-director of the Hope for African Children Initiative, serving 100 kids a year.
She and husband, Keneth, a certified nursing assistant at St. Charles Medical Center, have a two-year-old daughter. As fairly new homeowners, remodeling projects take up much of their spare time—along with golf, Kiyija's favorite sport.