BRUNSWICK — When the coronavirus pandemic forced Katie Sellers to stop meeting with her “little brother,” Fenton, for their weekly tennis matches, trips to the pool or games at the bowling alley, she wasn’t sure what their time together would look like. 

Katie Sellers and her “little brother” Fenton last spring. Sellers is a big sister through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bath/Brunswick and like other matches, has had to adjust to meeting virtually amid the pandemic. Contibuted photo

Fenton, or “Finny,” an 11-year-old boy she has been mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bath/Brunswick for just over two years, is extremely active, she said, and their time together has always revolved around physical activity and sports. 

Their bond is strong though, and it didn’t take long before he picked up a comic book and started reading to her. Now it’s a weekly tradition they both look forward to. 

Sellers and her little are among the 140 big and little matches forced to adapt to a relationship that looks very different from just a few weeks ago. 

But the local nonprofit, based around matching youth facing adversity to one-on-one relationships with adult mentors, is doing what it can to keep the pairs “maintaining a connection from a distance,” Lindsay MacDonald, executive director said. 

Volunteers in the school-based program switched to a penpal system to keep in touch once the schools closed and Bowdoin College, where more than 50 of the volunteers attend, moved to remote learning. 

Bigs and littles in the community program also have found ways to stay in touch, from Skype and Facetime calls, remote games and care packages. One big sister spent two hours on the phone with Comcast to get her little’s family set up with 60 days of free internet so they could do homework and play learning games together. A big brother dropped off some books they could read and talk about and another planned a virtual museum tour. One simply drove by to wave through a window and say he missed him. 

The move to distance learning in the schools, while necessary, has “created a lot of upheaval and anxiety for our youth,” MacDonald said, and “especially youth who may already be challenged with a variety of other circumstances.” 

Plus, she added, many of the children they work with live in very rural areas, adding an additional layer of isolation. 

Children “really need this connection, especially right now,” she said. 

The pandemic is also taking a toll on the organization financially, not just programmatically. 

The annual Bowl for Kids’ Sake, originally slated for April 17 and 18 is the organization’s largest fundraiser and typically raises between $70,000 and $80,000— funds which carry them throughout the spring and summer. The event has been pushed to October. 

For now, they are relying on savings and what grants they can get, MacDonald said, and the board recently raised an additional $5,000 to help keep things afloat. It’s hard to know if it will be enough, she said, because nobody knows how long the coronavirus and associated restrictions will last. 

“We can manage for now, but we’re going to need fundraising to pick up again,” she said. 

Fundraising accounts for 57% of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ $265,000 budget

We are hopeful to start fundraising again during the summer months to ensure successful fall events, however, there are numerous small businesses, larger corporations and hundreds of individual donors who typically contribute,” she said. “It’s been challenging to navigate what the financial outcomes may be during these unsettled economic conditions.”

These challenges immediately followed what MacDonald said was a “banner year” for making matches. 

Just over a year ago there were about 40 kids on the waitlist. Now, there are just 16 on that list. Last year, more men than ever stepped up to mentor young boys (the organization does not pair big brothers with little sisters), a cohort that has historically been hard to find. 

“Research shows that mentors play a powerful role in providing young people with the tools to strive and thrive, to attend and engage in school, and to reduce or avoid risky behavior like drug use. In turn, these young people are 55 percent more likely to be enrolled in college and 81 percent more likely to report participating regularly in sports or extracurricular activities,” Big Brothers Big Sisters officials said in a press release last year. 

Even just during the last few weeks, Sellers has seen how much Fenton forward to their weekly chats. 

As much as they enjoy reading comic books though, she said they already have a list going (tennis, swimming, etc.) of all the things they will do together once quarantine is over.

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