Most of us have heard of Big Brothers and Big Sisters (BBBS), know the group is active locally, and understand that the more engaged grownups in kids’ lives the better. But fewer people are familiar with stories of BBBS’ long-term impact on all involved, and their role in the circle of success in our community.
BBBS is the recipient of the March donation jar at Community Closet – which empowers thrift shoppers to give back to local programs, even if they only have a handful of change to spare. It’s also Bowl for Kids Sake month so a good time to show your support for this powerful and effective program. Community Closet CEO and founder Caron Cooper has been recalling when her son Bill was in middle school and was matched with a Big Brother, Dan Shapiro. While many perceive Cooper primarily as a leader in the community, BBBS was there for her and her son at a very vulnerable time in their lives.
Cooper recalls the challenges of becoming a single parent almost two decades ago and the decision to stay in Livingston so her son could be near his dad - and the subsequent and unexpected effects of living close to the poverty level. “Living at poverty level is very stressful. Anything that might go wrong, from a flat tire to your kid needing new snow boots, can wreck a lean budget,” she says. One of the subtle impacts of having less and less money to spend was that Cooper withdrew from friendships and outings that would require an outlay of money. Shame, stigma, and a sense of helpless chaos deepen the pain of poverty. The stress of near full-time parenting, founding a rapidly-growing nonprofit, and constant worry about staying afloat financially were taking their toll on Cooper, and Bill was getting bored. She realized both she and her son could benefit from some quality time apart. Bill was a unique kid, experienced some social anxiety, and while he got along well with others in the classroom, was happiest with one friend. Cooper was concerned he was missing out on learning how to make connections with a wider variety of people since they have no extended family in the area.
Familiar with BBBS from Rotary, one day Cooper chanced on an open parking spot in front of BBBS so went in and talked to then director Kelly Wade, who explained how the program worked. Cooper was nervous about Bill needing to have money for outings with a Big, but Wade assured her that activities wouldn’t include a pricy climbing gym, for instance, but a walk at Mayor’s Landing. Parents’ responsibility is simply to have their child ready to go for time with their Big and to report back with any concerns. When Cooper pitched BBBS to Bill, she was pleasantly surprised that he immediately showed interest. During the intake interview, Bill talked about music with Wade and she thought of then Pine Creek Café owner Dan Shapiro as a perfect match. The guys met and agreed to move forward with the match. “One thing I really liked about the matching process,” says Cooper, “was that respect for the Big was stressed; the Little needed to be on time and prepared for the activity, so Bill shared some responsibility.”
The matched pair often took their dogs for long walks and shared an obsession with Mystery Science Theater. Sometimes they’d stop by Pine Creek Café’ and Bill would follow Shapiro around the kitchen and met a whole new circle of people, many who still ask Cooper about Bill a decade later. Cooper recalls her favorite Mother’s Day ever was when Shapiro invited her to the café and he and Bill made her a 3-course meal. Shapiro recalls feeling great when Cooper told him that after he and Bill were matched, Bill’s social stress symptoms significantly diminished. Shapiro was also there for Bill when a school friend died suddenly. Another important observation was that as Shapiro experienced major life changes - from leaving his restaurant business to starting a landscaping and water feature business – he served to model for Bill how to carry on when things don’t go as planned and how to embrace change and tackle the unknown.
Cooper remains thankful that Bill had such a great role model in his life, and one that taught him cooking skills and confidence in the kitchen was a bonus. She also saw the benefit of Bill being accountable to another adult outside of his parents and how he embraced that responsibility. The program gave Cooper piece of mind and expanded her safety net; knowing that her son was outside in the fresh air with his Big and she had personal time to regroup. Bill’s social skills got much stronger with both peers and adults, and he enlarged his community and benefited from being part of circles outside school and home life. Cooper saw her son’s confidence increase emotionally and intellectually, and he became more independent. He is now forging his own path in San Francisco, a road brightly lit by empowering foundational relationships and experiences in Park County.
Cooper encourages potential Bigs, Littles, parents and supporters to get involved with BBBS and be part of teams that remove barriers including isolation and poverty stigma, and strengthen the circles of success and connection in our community.