In three years, Michelle Eicher will age out of the program that connected her with Karen Kelly, but the two agree they will always be friends.
The organization they met through, Shawnee’s branch of Big Brothers Big Sisters, is just starting to come back to life after years of little activity. The program pairs kids ages six to 18 with adults of the same gender to mentor them, and while plenty of kids are eager for a match, adults are harder to find.
“We are hurting for volunteers,” said Nikki Rieves, who has been the area director since October. “If the volunteers aren’t there, then the [kids] stay on the waiting list and could be for a couple years...and then they tend to just get very disheartened.”
Before Rieves came onboard, the Shawnee location had gone without an area director for almost three years, and was overseen by the Norman branch. Without a director, the program slowly began to die down in the area –– but now, Rieves hopes to revive it.
Kelly and Michelle matched eight years ago, after Kelly was inspired by a friend to get involved.
“She would say, ‘I met with my little sister, and this week we did this, and the next week we did that,’” Kelly said. “And I thought, ‘That is just so cool, and so meaningful.’”
Adults in the community-based program, nicknamed “Bigs,” take their “Littles” on weekly outings to museums, aquariums, sports events or even just for ice cream or a walk in the park. There is also a school-based program where Bigs meet with their Littles for about 45 minutes between classes at school, Rieves said.
Big Brothers Big Sisters also has programs tailored especially to children with parents in prison and children from military families, Rieves said.
Children join the program for many reasons, ranging from having low-income families or incarcerated parents to low self-esteem and bad grades, Rieves said.
“From what I see so far there’s not just one thing that stands out to say, ‘This is the child that we tend to get the most often,’” Rieves said. “But there’s just some kind of need.”
In Michelle’s case, her family had just moved to Shawnee and were looking for someone to introduce their children to the town, her parent Terri Eicher said.
Michelle had eight siblings at the time, and the family’s number has since grown to 12, Eicher said.
“Her family of course loves her, and she’s got a good home,” Kelly said. “But I think because there were so many kids, there just wasn’t an opportunity to have one-on-one time, to go to the mall, get your nails done…”
A lot of work goes in behind the scenes to match a Big and Little. Rieves spends hours interviewing each participant about their likes and dislikes and getting a feel for their personalities before she suggests a match, she said.
For many Littles in the program, which has been around since 1904, Bigs have the power to change the trajectory of their lives and open their minds to new possibilities.
“That’s kind of the overall concept, no matter what the kiddos’ backgrounds are, is just to give them a different outlook on life,” Rieves said. “Show them potential for different things.”
For Kelly, who was a non-traditional student at Oklahoma Baptist University and now works at the University of Oklahoma, education is a big deal –– something she hopes to impart to Michelle. She likes to take Michelle to OU to interact with college students and get inspired for her future, she said.
But some of Michelle’s most memorable experiences have been the simple ones.
“I think...what I liked doing the most was baking,” Michelle said. “We’d get to spend time together and just talk about whatever. We made those M&M cookies with the Snickers in the middle.”
Michelle, now 15, wants to begin attending a special nursing program for high schoolers at Gordon Cooper Technology Center when she is a junior. Eicher calls her the “nurse of the family.”
Meanwhile, Rieves is working on finding matches for the next generation of kids, especially little boys. She is also bringing back the Big Couple program, which pairs children with an established couple to show them what a healthy relationship looks like, she said.
“Sometimes you get lost in your own thoughts and you say, ‘I’m busy with my workday, and then after that I look forward to just going home and relaxing,’” Rieves said. “When you start trying to prioritize your time like that, it’s very hard to figure out how you’re going to have time for a child...but it is surprisingly manageable.”