WTTW: Big Brothers Big Sisters Seeking Black, Latino Mentors
Full story appeared on WTTW here.
January 21, 2021
By Erica Gunderson
Jordan Bond and Omari Rasheed are not related. But they are brothers.
Bond is the “big” to Rasheed’s “little.” They were matched by Big Brothers Big Sisters Chicago eight years ago, when Rasheed was in fifth grade.
“From the jump, he was really a great mannered guy – confident, great personality, smart, willing to work hard. He was awesome from the beginning.”
Rasheed’s mother Kamaria Ngozi says Bond’s presence has helped open up her son’s world.
“I just wanted to make sure that my son had all the tools that he needed to achieve his maximum potential,” said Ngozi. “To learn about the value of volunteerism and to pay it forward – to show that people cared enough to invest in him. Jordan made it easy too, it was like he was this long-lost family member.”
Through the years, Rasheed and Bond say they’ve done just about all the big and little things brothers do together – they recall outings to museums, fun runs, sledding, and many basketball games. “We’ve played a lot of different places, my house, maybe stopping at a park and playing pickup game in Bronzeville and trying to win it, that’s always fun,” said Bond.
CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago Jeremy Foster says that his organization is on the lookout for more men like Jordan Bond.
“Even though a good big brother is a good big brother, we understand how important it is to see somebody who looks like you in everyday life having success, maybe growing up in similar environment that you grew up in,” said Foster. “That's why we're extremely intentional in recruiting more African American men to be big brothers.”
Similarly, Foster says Big Brothers Big Sisters is hoping to recruit more Spanish-speaking Bigs to better serve Chicago’s Latino kids.
“The more that we’re out in the community…we’re recruiting more children from Latinx backgrounds. Because we have that, even though we do have staff that are bilingual, it’s important just like with African American children that we have representation within our Latino communities, especially around the language piece,” he said.
Where Rasheed and Bond were matched through a traditional community-based program, Big sister Denise Gonzalez-Mendez and Little sister Itzel Rivera were matched through a site-based program, in which matches meet in groups – in their case, meetings were at The Marketing Store office where Gonzalez-Mendez works.
“Every two weeks Itzel with her classmates were coming to the TMS office and we were hosting our sessions there. We definitely hit it off well and so we were lucky in that way and so we made an effort to keep it going during the pandemic.”
Like Rivera’s family, Gonzalez-Mendez speaks Spanish, something that Rivera says helps make her parents feel comfortable with the mentorship. “My parents know that I’m with someone I’ll be able to understand, and it help me expand my vocabulary in both languages,” she said.
They connect around their shared Mexican heritage, too. “We were just speaking about how with the pandemic, the holidays looked different for us,” said Gonzalez-Mendez. “Both of us are used to gathering with our big families, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and … we were able to talk through that and be able to understand how sacrificing a year of that big get-together can get more years with our extended families.”
Rivera says that while she misses the trips to the office for group meetings, her relationship with Gonzalez-Mendez is still thriving.
“I’m able to connect with someone and not just my age but older and see their different perspectives and actually take in so much more than I would be able to see from my view of the world,” said Rivera. “It is a bit different because it’s all virtual and we’re used to see each other in person. … We’re still talking the same amount, nothing really has changed other than being on Zoom.”
And they have plenty to talk about, says Gonzalez-Mendez. In their Zoom catchups, she and Rivera have shared their goals for the new year and strategies for managing emotions during the pandemic – plus some less weighty topics.
“We both love putting things together, redecorating our rooms, we love animals,” said Gonzalez-Mendez. “We always talk about our animals or what we would like to have if we lived on a farm or had a bigger house.”
Rivera says she wants other kids to know that Big Brothers Big Sisters mentorships can be a rewarding experience.
“Even though you might be scared of going out and being social, it’s a place where you can be very independent, you learn new things about yourself. I’m able to connect with someone and see their different perspectives and take in so much more than I would see from my view of the world, what challenges she faces, and see different points of view.”
At 12 years old, Rivera has a few years to go before she’s aged out of the program, but Rasheed is not so little anymore – he just turned 18 and is preparing to head off to college in the fall. He reports that Big Brother Bond helped him navigate the application process and wrote him a recommendation letter. Rasheed says he was accepted at all seven schools he applied to.
“I think he’s always had an inclination toward HBCUs, which I think are dope,” says Bond. “I think my only encouragement was don’t limit yourself…One thing I didn’t realize until I was older, is my risk is not in setting goals and not hitting them…it’s in setting goals too low.”
And as their “official” Big Brotherhood comes to an end, both Rasheed and Bond say they look forward to their friendship continuing into Rasheed’s adulthood.
“I’m gonna contact him when I go to college, and I think it’s going to be the same,” said Rasheed.
“This guy’s family,” said Bond. “No matter the distance, no matter the time, family’s family. He knows I have his back throughout everything.”