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New Big Brothers Big Sisters director wants to reach more local children

Recorder/Peter MacDonald
New Big Brothers/Big Sisters Executive Director Danielle Letourneau-Therrien is looking to boost the number of “big” mentors so more youngsters can use the program.

Recorder/Peter MacDonald New Big Brothers/Big Sisters Executive Director Danielle Letourneau-Therrien is looking to boost the number of “big” mentors so more youngsters can use the program.

GREENFIELD — On a chalkboard in her Second Congregational Church office, a room that once was a Sunday School classroom, Danielle Letourneau-Therrien has outlined her vision for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County — an organization she was hired to lead last month.

Now in its 45th year here, the organization pairs 130 children at a time with volunteer teenage or adult mentors in the community. The “big” mentors meet with their “littles” at least one hour every week, to participate in activities or talk about life. Programs at local private schools pair up children with upperclassmen during weekly Friday night events at those schools.

But Letourneau-Therrien, 38, feels that more can be done to help the children of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region. In her eyes, the organization has gone under the radar in recent years.

“We don’t have a formal waiting list ... (but) we probably could serve 50 other kids right now if we had the adults to do it,” she said. As the new executive director, she is hoping to improve the organization’s social media and advertising presence immediately.

And she is looking to increase fundraising efforts, which bring in $100,000 each year — about 40 percent of the organization’s $250,000 budget. Upcoming events, such as the annual “Bowl for Kids’ Sake” event April 27 in Erving, have been critical in the past decade since federal and state aid virtually disappeared, she said.

Hiring a new executive director

Letourneau’s hire last month came after a trying year for the local Big Brothers Big Sisters. The organization and its longtime leader, Kay Johnson, parted ways last spring and volunteer Board of Trustees members filled in, running operations for eight months without an executive director.

“It was difficult, it was stressful at times,” said Laurel Guy, the board president. “We wanted to take our time and figure out exactly what we needed, how things could be run differently from the way things had been run in the past.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County was also under pressure from the national organization to merge with another larger organization in Worcester or Boston, said Guy. Letourneau-Therrien, who had joined the board in 2011, was part of an internal committee that ultimately decided to keep the Franklin County organization on its own, said Guy.

When the board began looking for a new executive director last fall, Letourneau-Therrien was on the search committee. But one day, when she was looking at the revised job description, she decided she wanted to apply herself.

Guy said that there were four or five serious candidates for the job, but no other internal candidates like Letourneau-Therrien, who already knew the organization’s goals.

In the past, the executive director had also served as a case worker — an employee that matches child and mentor and then follows up each week with both the child’s caregivers and the volunteer.

Letourneau-Therrien will leave those tasks to the organization’s two full-time and one part-time case workers, instead focusing solely on the managerial side: outreach, fundraising and grant applications. The more money the organization raises and volunteer mentors it recruits, the more local children it will be able to reach, she said.

Serving the community’s children

Big Brothers Big Sisters serves children between the ages of 6 and 14, who come from a wide range of backgrounds.

Letourneau-Therrien said that 82 percent of the families served are near or below the poverty line and 63 percent of the children live in homes where drug and alcohol abuse has occurred. Close to 25 percent have been physically or emotionally abused, or experienced some sort of trauma like homelessness, she said.

After children are referred to the organization by parents, guardians or teachers, they are interviewed by a case worker and fill out paperwork.

That’s when the science becomes an art, said Letourneau-Therrien.

Case workers will have in mind a volunteer mentor, someone who also had been interviewed by the organization and undergone an extensive background check. The two are then paired together, with case workers checking in weekly to offer support and guidance. In some cases, a child may be paired with the same “big” for eight years.

Younger children are often paired with upperclassmen at Deerfield Academy or Northfield Mount Hermon School. Children are bused to Deerfield or Gill every Friday night for a few hours of dinner and social activities.

The national organization has published studies saying that the experience improves children’s love of school and learning and decreases their chances of using drugs or alcohol as a teenager.

The growth can work both ways, said Letourneau-Therrien.

“There’s a lot you can learn from a frank, open little child,” she said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters Franklin County is always looking for more mentors, especially males — who only represent about a third of the total adult volunteers, said Letourneau-Therrien. Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more information, can contact the office at 413-772-0915.

A past in education,
volunteering

A Turners Falls native, Letourneau-Therrien studied psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

She moved back to Greenfield 13 years ago, and began working in a temporary capacity on “Responsive Classroom,” a social and emotional learning program designed by local education curriculum company Northeast Foundation for Children.

She worked there for 12 years, eventually serving as a customer service and operations manager and supervising as many as 11 people at one time.

In December 2006, Letourneau-Therrien was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Greenfield Town Council. She served as a councilor for 4 1∕2 years, sitting on community relations and economic development subcommittees during that stint

She recently led a community fundraising effort with her sister, Nicole Letourneau, to pay for Beacon Field renovations. The project, which included town money and personal donations, cost $53,000.

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