Students at Penn Mentor Local Children Through Big Brothers Big Sisters

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820April 14, 2014

Shaiyam Flavaney credits much of his success as a student at the University of Pennsylvania to the guidance he received from his mentors, growing up in Jackson, N.J.

Flavaney says he always had someone he could confide in for advice and wanted to be able to play that role in another young man’s life. That’s why the junior philosophy, politics and economics major in the School of Arts & Sciences decided to become a volunteer through the campus Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, officially known as the Bentley Penn Bigs Program.

As the nation’s oldest and largest mentoring organization, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program serves 200,000 at-risk youth across the country.

Penn students have been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters Southeastern Pennsylvania for 10 years. In that time, the level of impact has grown significantly.

In the 2003-04 school year, there were 72 matches, pairing up a “big,” a student from Penn, with a “little,” a child from a Philadelphia school.

This year, the program has made 280 matches between undergraduates at Penn and youngsters from seven local schools: Our Mother of Sorrows, St. Ignatius, Samuel Powel Elementary, Independence Charter School, Kipp West Philadelphia Preparatory School, Heston Elementary and Henry C. Lea Elementary.

In all, there have been approximately 1,900 matches made at Penn.

Flavaney is new to the program and has been matched for only about six weeks with his “little,” Naseem, who attends Our Mother of Sorrows.

Because their relationship is still relatively new, they just spend time trying to get to know each other better.

“Our meetings are generally spent talking, joking and laughing while playing games,” says Flavaney. “It is simple and fun.”

Because this winter was particularly harsh, Flavaney and Naseem have spent a lot of time playing indoor games like Uno or Battleship. But, they have big plans for the spring and hope to spend a lot of time together playing football and basketball outdoors.

Being involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program on campus also offers a welcome break from Flavaney’s studies.

“Penn can be a stressful and highly competitive environment, but as a Big Brother I get to leave all of it behind for an hour a week, go out into the community and spend time with my ‘little’ who genuinely appreciates it,” Flavaney says. 

More than three years ago, Michael Blaha, a senior ecology and evolutionary biology major in Penn Arts & Sciences from Blair, Neb., was paired with his “little,” Tylik, a student from Lea. Today, they have what’s known as an “enhanced” match, meaning that they are able to meet regularly at Tylik’s house or outside of school.

He says Penn students, the “bigs,” each spend approximately one hour per week with their “littles,” usually either during lunch or after school at one of the schools involved in the program. Activities can include homework help, playing sports or board games, spending time on the playground or talking about school, friends, family life and the like.

When senior Samantha Osaki first came to campus from Walnut, Calif., she volunteered with a tutoring organization, but each semester just as she started to feel close to her tutee, she was assigned a new one. 

“Having to switch every single semester was an obstacle that prevented me from making a truly meaningful impact on a student’s life,” says Osaki, who is double-majoring in English and urban studies in Arts & Sciences. “When I found Big Brothers Big Sisters, I loved its structure, which allows you to stick with your ‘little’ for as long as you’d like -- and I’ve been committed ever since.”

As president of the Penn Education Society, a Civic Scholar, a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority and a resident advisor at Ware College House, where she heads a community service committee, “Ware Cares,” Osaki is a vocal advocate for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Being a Big Sister has been one of my favorite activities at Penn, and I'm very grateful for finding out about this program,” she says. “I believe in the power of social capital, as well as the long-term effects on young students of having been exposed to high-achieving young adults of the caliber one finds at Penn.”

For nearly three years, Osaki has been paired with Arielle, a student at Lea.

Since 2011, Osaki and Arielle have shared many activities together, like making friendship bracelets and key chains. But Osaki says one of the most meaningful experiences they share together is their notebook activity. Each carries a little notebook, and when they are together each fills out a page in the other’s book.

“Sometimes we tell stories in them, and sometimes we just draw pictures,” Osaki explains. “At the end of this year, I’ll have one to keep and so will Arielle.”

Flavaney also hopes that more Penn students will participate in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program on campus, as there is a strong need for qualified volunteers.

“There are a lot of children who would love to have a ‘big.’ Each week, I have to send away kids who want to hang out with me and my ‘little,’” Flavaney says. “Hopefully, more people will take the steps to becoming a ‘big.’’’