A Conversation With Jessica Romley, COO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County

Volunteer mentor Jessica Romley with Little Sister Ale.

Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County is a nonprofit organization that matches mentors with youth facing adversity in the hopes of providing a supportive individual to the youths’ lives. This mentor program strives to provide a guiding mentor in order to keep youth on a positive path despite their environment. Jessica Romley, the Chief Operating Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County, provides insight into this life-changing mentorship program.

Interviewed by Megan Tao

Could you describe the general profile of the “Littles” who take part in your mentorship program?

Our goal as an agency is to pair a youth between the ages of six to 16 with a trained mentor who will help guide and support them throughout their childhood and young adult life. Big Brothers Big Sisters supports this relationship through professional case management to ensure that the matched relationships we put in place are strong, happy, and healthy.

Over the last 60 years of serving Orange County, we’ve learned that no two children are alike.  They face a variety of significant challenges that often act as barriers to success. For example, 68 percent of our youth live under the poverty line and 10 percent have an incarcerated parent—these are just a few circumstances that can cause roadblocks that prevent a child’s access to quality education and ability to achieve long-term, sustainable independence.

One common factor that each of these children and their families share is that they’ve raised their hand and asked for a mentor. We believe that the potential of every youth in our program is limitless, and with the guidance of a mentor, they can reach incredible milestones they never thought were possible.

What are some of the main reasons as to why Littles enroll in the program?

There are numerous factors that bring families to our agency. Big Brothers Big Sisters has strong relationships with schools, the district attorney’s office, and communities partners to help refer youth to our program. We often serve multiple children from the same family, each with their own mentor. The “secret sauce” to our program’s success is that when parents and youth enroll in our program, each party wants to be there. Families come to us seeking a resource for their child and the child wants and needs a mentor.

Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County office where a professional staff provides case management for matches.

How long do the Littles usually stay in the program?

We ask for a minimum commitment of one year in order to participate in our program, from both the child and the volunteer. But one year is just the beginning. I was matched almost 10 years ago to my Little Sister, Ale. We met when she was eight, and she is now 17. As she wraps up her senior year in high school, Ale and I are receiving college and career-focused support through Big Brothers Big Sisters to help her achieve her dreams of graduating college.

We’ll be able to have continued support from the agency for years to come thanks to an initiative called Destination Future, which is a commitment we made to serve matches until Littles turn 25. We were the first in California to expand our program, all in an attempt to further the impact that mentorship has and truly support the potential of the youth in our community.

What are some of the main reasons as to why Bigs volunteer in the program?

We ask ourselves that question often. Recently, we worked with Gallup on a project that explored why our volunteers decided to get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters. We learned that 79 percent want to give back and 92 percent feel proud to volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Being a mentor means that you have a unique, long-term relationship and direct impact on a child in our community. I can speak from personal experience. When I first became a volunteer, I thought that I was going to give back—but I didn’t anticipate how much having my Little Sister Ale in my life would affect me. She has taught me so much about perseverance, compassion, and gratitude. I am so proud of the person that my Little Sister has become and feel lucky to have been able to be by her side for the last 10 years. I am a better person because of her.

What’s the balance between the Bigs’ focus on professional development and the social aspect of the mentor relationship?

Mentorship is built on a solid foundation of friendship. With that in mind, all we ask is that volunteers are friends to their Littles. The team of professional case managers at Big Brothers Big Sisters are trained to help support these relationships and develop goals, whether it’s learning how to throw a baseball, improving grades, building confidence, or applying to college. We provide resources, training, and support so mentors are guided through each step of the way.

Do Bigs keep in touch with their Littles even after the mentorship is over?

Our organization supports mentoring relationships until the Little turns 25, but the relationship that they build lasts a lifetime. We have former matches that are still in touch today and they are well into their late adulthood!

What is the overall goal or hope that Big Brothers Big Sisters Orange County has for the Littles that go through the mentorship program?

Our goal is simple: to change the life of a child for the better, forever. And we achieve this through professionally supported, one-to-one mentorship.

Megan Tao is a member of the InSight Magazine editorial board.

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