There is a lot going on in the world right now, and a lot of people are searching and engaged, looking for ways to give back, and ways to find meaning. It feels good, but it is also daunting.
One could spend all their free time worrying about hunger, drug and alcohol addiction, wounded or homeless veterans, children and families who are homeless or need food and stability. It can be overwhelming to even know where to start, how to begin to make change. Start at home.
Franklin County and the North Quabbin area is one of most beautiful parts of America, complete with amazing rivers, beautiful hills, hiking, skiing, the magnificent Quabbin, and several prestigious centers of academia, complete with ivy-covered architecture. We have farms, county fairs and fresh food. I saw a real-life bald eagle just the other day. It was amazing. I love it here. But, among this beauty, we also have poverty.
Franklin County and the North Quabbin region continue to experience extremely high levels of poverty, especially compared to other parts of Massachusetts. For example, Greenfield, the county seat and three times as populous as any of its neighbors, has a poverty rate of just over 26 percent, compared to 15 percent state-wide, according to 2013 census data.
The numbers for children are even more striking; 31 percent of children in Greenfield live in poverty, compared to 16 percent of children across Mass. Last year, 73 percent of the 167 children served by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County were living either at, near, or below poverty, and recently we have seen an increase in the number of children with an incarcerated parent, or who have witnessed drug or alcohol addiction at home. Our magnificent region covers over 800 square miles, yet we have vast areas where one cannot reach public transportation, and where it is easier to access drugs than it is to access the internet.
We are right here in the most rural and impoverished part of the state, and children bear the brunt of it. When you do not know how to make sense in the world, roll up your sleeves and join your neighbors by volunteering for a United Way Day of Action, or put on your boots and wade in for the Source to Sea Cleanup of those spectacular rivers, or, if you have the means, write a check to the Food Bank or the Women’s Fund or NELCWIT or Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County.
Our local programs require $250,000 a year to keep our doors open, and this funding is provided locally, by our own community. Though we are part of the large 100-plus year-old network of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the support we get from that affiliation is not financial. We rely on United Way, a few other grants, and by local individuals and local business partners. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County saw a 15 percent increase in the number of Big/Little matches we were able to support from 2015 to 2016, despite about $50,000 less in revenue from the previous year.
Even though we are an organization reliant on volunteers, it is essential that those volunteers and the children and families they are associated with are supported by paid trained professionals. For every dollar invested in effective mentoring programs, there is a return of $2.72, including projected increases in lifetime earnings gained by leading at-risk youth down the path to become productive adult citizens, as well as dollars saved through reduced juvenile delinquency and crime, improved school attendance, higher high school graduation rates, along with the lowered risk of youth involvement in risky behaviors such as drug, alcohol and tobacco use.
You can also become a mentor. Become a “Big” to a child who needs one. We know that children with mentors are better able to navigate the negative risk factors that we see. In fact, our data shows that mentored children are less likely than their peers to use drugs, to begin using alcohol, and they do better in school. They have better relationships with their parents, with teachers and with their friends.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County is celebrating 50 years in 2017. Our theory of change is that matching children facing adversity with screened and supported, caring Bigs can create better futures for the children involved, including, but not limited to, better relationships, decreased likelihood of risky behaviors, and an improved attitude towards school. The greatness of the relationship is created by the joy each pair finds in their shared activities, and is made stronger by the careful, ongoing, professional support we offer here locally, at our office.
This leads to measurable change where the futures of Littles are improved and each child has a greater chance of success in becoming a caring, engaged citizen, reaching their highest potential in a safer and secure world. And you can do that right here, in your neighborhood, where you can see eagles.
You can make change. This is how we work together for a better world.
Danielle Letourneau-Therrien is
executive director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County.