Big Brothers Big Sisters ushers in a new era

  • Richard Bongiovanni of Greenfield plays Dominoes with Desmond Arnold, 8, of Greenfield in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County program at the John Zon Community Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Vera Cooley of Greenfield volunteers playing Uno with a girl in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County program at the John Zon Community Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County has begun a program pairing youths with mentors at the John Zon Community Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Richard Bongiovanni of Greenfield plays Dominoes with Desmond Arnold, 8, of Greenfield in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County program at the John Zon Community Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2019 11:10:55 PM

GREENFIELD — Eight-year-old Desmond Arnold and 79-year-old Richard “Dick” Bongiovanni met for the first time Tuesday afternoon — they were playing dominos and laughing together within five minutes.

Arnold, who is in second grade at Federal Street Elementary School, is part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County program. Bongiovanni is what is known as Arnold’s “big.” He is also going to play a grandparent-type role in the youngster’s life throughout the school year.

“When you retire, you find things to do to keep you busy,” said Bongiovanni. “My youngest child is 48 years old. I have eight grandchildren who are in their 20s. I have one great-grandchild who is 6 years old. I wanted to do something with children, and when the people at the senior center told me about this program, I said ‘yes.’”

Bongiovanni watched as Arnold set up the dominos, only to knock them down. Both smiled with delight.

“He’s not shy,” said Bongiovanni. “We hit it off right away.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Franklin County ushered in a new era Tuesday by introducing three of its young clients to some of the community’s older members in a collaboration with Greenfield Council on Aging at the John Zon Community Center. This is the agency’s first intergenerational mentoring program, according to Executive Director Jennifer Webster.

“Supporting Franklin County youth who face adversity, while enriching the lives of our eldest community members, really is a win,” Webster said. “We are always seeking new and inventive ways to provide mentors to those who need them most. Collaborating with our partners at the Greenfield Council on Aging felt like a natural fit.”

Webster said the idea came when out of the agency’s efforts to find new, creative and innovative ways to serve the youth enrolled in the program, while serving the community, as well.

Across the table from Arnold and Bongiovanni sat Irene Seaman with her new little sister — a 9-year-old girl who is a third-grader at Federal Street Elementary School. The Recorder is not using her name as requested by her mother.

“She’s very crafty and very chatty,” said Seaman, as the young girl beaded with direction from her “big.”

Seaman has been a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters for 10 years. She said her first little is now 23 years old — she met her 10 years ago, when the youngster was 13.

“I raised boys,” said Seaman, who has two sons, one grandson and one granddaughter all living several hours away. “I wanted to play with girls.”

The two said they “instantly clicked.”

“I personally just feel like elderly people don’t deserve to be bored,” the young girl said. “I’m going to make sure she has a lot of fun.”

Webster said matches between senior mentors and youths are “carefully made and professionally supported” by Big Brothers Big Sisters. The senior mentors and their youth match meet once a week throughout the school year at the local community center, where they engage in activities that interest them, including games, gardening, crafts and more.

“In many ways, mentoring has its roots in grandparenting, and many of today’s youth don’t have actively involved elders in their life,” said Webster. “Our scientifically proven programs show that having a caring adult in your life during your most formidable years can have strong and lasting impacts. One area parents of many of our youths have said they need to see improvement is in engagement with and respect for seniors.”

Webster said mentorship programs, especially one-on-one, have been proven to have a positive impact on everyone involved.

“We know mentorship works,” she said. “It’s especially important for the success and happiness of youths at risk. Many struggling youths don’t have grandparents in their lives.”

She said partnering the community’s youths with senior mentors keeps seniors connected and active, while teaching youths to respect their elderly neighbors. She said it’s also important for seniors to understand the younger generation.

“This will have an impact felt throughout the community,” she said.

Not far down the table from Seaman and her little, Vera Cooley and her 9-year-old little sister played Uno. The youngster cannot release her name for personal reasons.

“I like hanging out with people and meeting new people,” the young girl said. “I knew this would be fun.”

She said she started having fun the minute she walked in the room.

Cooley said she has been a big sister for four years — her first little sister is graduating from high school this year. She said her three children and one grandchild all live relatively close, but she only gets to see her grandchild once a week, so felt this would be fun.

The youngsters ate apples and healthy snack bars and drank apple juice, while their elders watched, saying they felt good about being “grandparent-type” mentors.

“We’re looking forward to getting to know each other,” said Seaman, as Arnold and Bongiovanni built a fourth domino train at the other end of the table.

“We’re already making plans to get outside in the spring,” said her little sister.

Webster said a $30,000 grant from the Comcast NBC Universal Foundation will fund the project for two years. She said at this time, transportation is the biggest problem, so students from the Greenfield Middle School and Federal Street Elementary School are participating because they can walk to the community center.

“We have different types of programs,” Webster said. “There’s the kind people think of, where a mentor picks up a youth and takes them out for a while, and there’s the site-based, like this one, where mentors and mentees meet at a specific place. We have site-based programs at Deerfield Academy and Northfield Mount Hermon, for instance.

“The one at the Senior Center is actually going to be site-based-plus,” she said. “If a mentor wants to take a child somewhere — once they are comfortable with each other — they can. They can go to the YMCA to play basketball or walk downtown for an ice cream.”

Webster said that each week, senior mentors and the youths will spend an hour and a half together. She said Big Brothers Big Sisters hopes to grow the programs.

The new program is starting with six matches, but enrollment is ongoing.

Applications for both mentors and youths are available at: or by calling 413-772-0915.


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