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Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters creatively continue work and fun during the pandemic

Nutmeg Little Sister Jahyleeanne of New London, who turned 11 in mid-February, said she has learned “how to not get mad so easily at people” and the importance of not eating “all the animals up” from Big Sister Siobhan McGirl (a vegan) of Norwich.

Over the last year, the two have traveled to the beach and tasted sushi/edamame, voted for their favorite scarecrows during Putnam’s Great Pumpkin Festival and enjoyed a spa day in Jahyleeanne’s backyard during which they dipped their feet in a kiddie pool and painted their nails.

McGirl said in a joint telephone interview with Jahyleeanne that her goal is to set a good example for her Little Sister.

“I only hope to have a fraction of the impact on Jahyleeanne’s life that she has on mine,” she said.

Because of the pandemic, they often connect creatively on Zoom to read books, talk, and make salad, soap and natural facial masks with yogurt and lemon. Additionally, they made fun singing, dancing and inspirational videos, which they shared with family and friends.

One time, McGirl taught her Little Sister the moves to Madonna’s “Vogue” song remotely after which they held a fashion show with Jahyleeanne wearing numerous costumes.

“So we’re silly together, but I also try to make sure what we do packs a punch,” said McGirl, a New London County reporter for NBC Connecticut. “Every time when we meet with each other, we say what our rose and our thorn is. So we talk about the good. We talk about the bad and everything in between. And I love to see the way that Jahyleeanne’s mind works. She is so thoughtful in her questions, in her answers, in the way that she interacts with other people. It kind of emphasizes and highlights what’s important and I get to walk away with this new fresh perspective.”

McGirl said she also gave Jahyleeanne a coloring book of influential women, which included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. While coloring the pages, they talked about women who are and were important throughout history.

Currently, Jahyleeanne is developing sewing skills and has learned how to make masks and purses with her aunt.

Jahyleeanne, who has already studied acting and plans to pursue the performing arts, said she enjoys spending time with McGirl, because she is like a teenage sister. She also recommends the organization to other families.

“It’s fun, but they (Big Brother or Sister) still teach you like a mentor,” she said

McGirl said a friend of hers in Virginia was a Big Sister, so when she came to Connecticut, she decided to join the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters organization as a way to “try and have some sort of impact” and also get to know her community.

The New Jersey native said she is “so grateful for the opportunity to be a mentor and introduce new thoughts and have really cool conversations” with her Little Sister.

“I definitely recommend this (organization) to other people,” McGirl said. “It’s fulfilling. It’s been my favorite thing to happen in the last year by far. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

“We feel so blessed to have Big Brother Big Sister partnership with us. The organization did an amazing job matching Siobhan and Jahyleeanne. Siobhan is thoughtful, responsible, smart and very fun to be around. Jahyleeanne always looks forward to hanging with her Big Sister. Every month Big Brother Big Sister Match Support Specialist Ivana Kirk-Thigpen calls to see how things are going and I always ave good things to tell her,” said Jahyleeanne’s single parent in an email requesting anonymity. “I would recommend Big Brother Big Sister to anyone. It’s an awesome fun outlet for a child to have. I am excited and look forward to much more growth and success in the future with Siobhan helping Jahyleeanne navigate life experiences. She knows what Jahyleeanne likes and her goals and I know with every fun activity she always touches upon those future goals. Having a mentor is a wonderful thing for any child or teen; we are just blessed to have one that goes above and beyond what we could ask for.”

In the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters’ 2019 annual report, the organization touts the fact that Little Brothers and Sisters are positively affected by their experiences with mentors over a period of one year: 89% improved their academic performance, 97% improved their self-confidence, 87% of families reported improved family relations, and 89% developed an improved sense of the future.

“When you have a better sense of where you’re going it has a whole variety of ramifications,” said Andy Fleischmann, president and chief executive officer of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters. “Not only can kids start focusing more on school, they start thinking about what comes after school, what kind of additional activities they should take up in order to be ready for that. It creates a whole mindset of planfulness and planning for the future that might not be there otherwise,”

“Over 80 percent of the children in our program overall and probably over 90 percent in the Norwich area are living below the poverty line,” Fleischmann said. “And similar numbers of kids are living in households that are either single parent or no parent (they’re being raised by aunts, uncles, grandparents or cousins). So these are kids that are definitely facing challenges and having an adult who shows up the way Siobhan does on a very regular basis to check in and catch up and be supportive, (which) makes a big difference.”

He said the goal of the program is to connect at a regularly scheduled time weekly and for the adult volunteer, child and family to commit for one year. “There are amazing bonds of caring and affection that develop between mentor and child, so our typical match length is in excess of three years.”

Fleischmann said that the organization is still helping children who need them during the pandemic.

“We do welcome additional volunteers,” he said. “We always could use more men, especially men of color, but we’re doing pretty well on the volunteer front.”

For the first time in his 10-year tenure, Fleischmann said he is surprised that not as many families are reaching out to Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters. He surmised many families may not understand that the organization “is still here,” because they associate it with face-to-face mentoring. During the pandemic, he said they’ve “pivoted to the virtual world and that we’ve still got all sorts of support for kids happening.”

Also, he thinks many “families are stressed and dealing with other challenges like trying to make sure kids stay engaged with school and have things to do and then there are economic challenges that are just extraordinary for the families we serve.”

For more information about Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters or to enroll your child, volunteer or donate, go online to www.nbbbs.org or call (860) 525-5437, ext. 117.

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