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Staying close, remotely: Big Brothers/Big Sisters finding ways to mentor kids from afar

Sondra Lintlemann-Dellaripa found the perfect match when the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters program paired her a year ago with Liora Doyle, now an 11-year-old East Lyme Middle School student.

"I adored her personality," Lintlemann-Dellaripa, a resident of Old Saybrook, said in a phone interview. "She was a little sardonic, which is unusual for a 10-year-old."

Liora, oldest of six children, craved Lintlemann-Dellaripa's attention, and the duo regularly watched movies, walked, shopped and did arts and crafts together. Liora previously had been home-schooled, but now she was looking forward to being involved in the school's musical production as well as hanging out with friends.

Then the pandemic hit. And everything changed.

"Normally we were very active, out and about," Lintlemann-Dellaripa said. "So it was a bit of a challenge when this happened."

Andy Fleischmann, president and CEO of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters covering all of southeastern Connecticut and more than 100 towns in the state, said his organization took the pandemic in stages, at first advising mentors to avoid large gatherings and then encouraging only one-on-one meetings.

But as the full set of statewide social distancing guidelines rolled out to keep COVID-19 at bay, the nonprofit let volunteers know that they would have to move to virtual mentorship for the first time.

And the staff at Big Brothers Big Sisters went into overdrive to find a wide range of activities that mentors could share with their young charges, generally between 6 and 18 years old (matches between mentors and children are made up to age 14). Activities included virtual tours and educational games.

"They did an amazing job," Fleischmann said of his staff. "Within hours, we had a virtual toolkit available online."

Fleischmann estimated that about 94 percent of volunteers, who must go through a rigorous screening process, had moved to virtual mentoring within a couple weeks. The virtual toolkit developed in Connecticut, he added, has been picked up by members of the national organization from other states, supplemented by local resources.

Volunteers are asked to devote six to 10 hours a month to a child in the Big Brother Big Sister program, which translates to two to three weekends a month during normal times. But in the midst of the pandemic, mentors have been asked to check in with the children at least once a week.

"They were strongly encouraged to pick a day ... a meeting time that could be an anchor for kids," Fleischmann said. "We're facing the challenge of self-isolation, which can be disorienting, especially for kids."

Volunteers are given a great deal of latitude as far as the types of activities they can engage in with the children. Fleischmann cited one volunteer with a background in science who sent a Lego kit to his Little Brother, who then worked with him on a Lego project while connected to the FaceTime app.

"It's real-world stuff they're doing when they connect online," he said. "It varies as much as kids vary. But the common denominator, the most important aspect of these weekly get-togethers is being able to catch up, knowing there's time for them to just share with their mentor, to talk."

Fleischmann said kids have been upset not only by the pandemic and its effects but also by the recent killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, and the subsequent images on nightly TV of protests, rioting and related violence.

Mentors are provided with resources on how to talk to children about these events, he added, including do's and don'ts for how to respond to questions.

"Our volunteers are extremely caring people," Fleischmann said. "We're less like a program and more like a family. The kids love their mentors, and the mentors love their kids."

But the need is great, Fleischmann said, and the rate of volunteerism has dropped off significantly since COVID-19 hit the state. Donations have likewise declined as Connecticut's jobless rate has soared into the double digits.

The Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters program, which serves about 40 families in New London County and 700 in the state, currently has a wait list of about 200 statewide, he estimated.

"We can always use more mentors, and we can always use more men of color," Fleischmann added.

New London and Groton has a particularly acute need, he said.

Mentors tend to come from a 30-mile radius or so, and more women than men volunteer. As of May 28, new rules in the state allowed mentors to meet in person with children in the program, but only at 6 feet apart, wearing a mask.

Many have chosen to maintain the virtual meetings.

"A lot of folks are feeling understandably helpless, so much is happening in this country," Fleischmann said. "People should consider volunteering to help a child in need. It gives you a different perspective and lifts your spirits." 

Lintlemann-Dellaripa, the mentor from Old Saybrook, said she enjoys cooking with her Little Sister Liora over Zoom. They've also watched movies together while munching popcorn and enjoyed "traveling" to different exotic locales using YouTube.

"The upside is we see each other more often," Lintlemann-Dellaripa said. "We used to see each other once or twice a month. Now we chat every two to three days."

Chatting can mean texting, calling on the phone or hosting Zoom meetings. And the get-togethers, she added, are more spontaneous than they used to be.

"We don't take the place of parents," Lintlemann-Dellaripa added. "But sometimes an adult mentor can give a child another worldview."

Liora's mother, Kaye Leigh Doyle, said she is hoping Lintlemann-Dellaripa's meetups with her daughter eventually will return to face-to-face, one-on-one excursions, but for now she's grateful for virtual mentoring.

"Being able to maintain a relationship has been great," she said, "with so many relationships being taken away from her right now. It's been really a blessing to be able to do that."

l.howard@theday.com

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