COVID-19 has hit Big Sisters particularly hard.
The B.C. Lower Mainland chapter’s 60th anniversary this year has lost some sparkle due to the pandemic and physical-distancing rules that make in-person visits less frequent or more difficult.
“Our clients are among those most negatively impacted by the pandemic,” Hanne Madsen, the organization’s executive director, told an online audience during The Big Sisters Luminary Award Soirée, the agency’s largest annual fundraiser.
On the bright side, the Sept. 30 event raised a record-breaking $1 million in its sixth year.
“We were speechless and overwhelmed by the tremendous response from our supporters,” Madsen said. “The generosity and commitment of our community will ensure that the vulnerable youth we serve never feel forgotten. We are deeply grateful.”
Madsen, a South Surrey resident, has been with Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland for more than two years, and has long been a champion of women and girls.
Next to Vancouver, Surrey is the second largest community served by the organization, so it made sense to open a Surrey office early this year, in the 7300-block of 137th Street.
“We’re really seeing an increase in the demands for our services here in Surrey, and so we really wanted to have that presence in this area,” Madsen said in a recent phone interview.
“I’m calling from the new office we opened in Newton at the end of January, the beginning of February,” she added. “We were here for about six weeks before COVID happened and the staff started working remotely, from home, but I’ve been able to work here, more or less, throughout COVID.”
Right now, Big and Little Sisters are doing both virtual and in-person visits.
“We’re kind of doing a hybrid at the moment,” Madsen explained. “It was a difficult time early on in COVID, and I really credit the team here for pivoting and putting some of our programs online.”
Surrey Schools has really embraced Go Girls, Madsen said, but when COVID hit in March and schools were closed, those sites could no longer be used for the small groups of girls involved in the weekly two-hour sessions with mentors.
“They would get together and talk about healthy eating, staying active and proper nutrition, how to be a good friend – you know, some of the social issues, bullying, things like that,” Madsen explained. “And of course we couldn’t get access to the schools, right, and so that was put on a virtual platform. Now it’s offered twice a week, still in small groups, and we’ve gotten very creative in what we offer in that program. We’d like to continue to build on that and get the word out to parents that it’s still available but just in a virtual format.”
Of course, there are still many young people in Surrey on the Big Sisters waitlist, and one of the organization’s struggles is recruiting volunteer mentors.
Since 1960, Big Sisters “has been fighting loneliness and helping to build resiliency in the over 800 at-risk youth we support each year, but we can’t do it without your help,” says an appeal for donations on bigsisters.bc.ca, where “Become a Volunteer” information is also posted.
The organization serves female, transgender and non-binary youth, aged seven to 17, in need of a positive female role model in their lives.
“Research shows 1 in 10 kids in the Lower Mainland do not feel they have a single adult in their life who cares about them,” the organization said in a news release. “In 2019, the organization supported over 850 youth. In addition to continuing support for these existing matches, Big Sisters receives over 400 referrals annually. Each one is a youth looking for a Big Sister of her very own. With a positive adult role model in their life, girls in the Lower Mainland are set on a path to reach their full potential.”
During this year’s online Luminary Award Soirée, six women were recognized for their long-time commitment to Big Sisters “and incredible contributions to vulnerable youth in our community.” They are the Honourable Janet Austin, Joanne Brown, Kay Gray, Linda Parsons, Patricia Shields and Susan Mendelson.
The fundraiser, hosted by Fred Lee, attracted more than 500 guests “at home and in their bubbles.” They were treated to “a gala-in-a-box experience with delectable eats by The Lazy Gourmet and wine from Mission Hill, while bidding in the silent auction and listening to musical performances by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Side One.”
Meantime, Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver also says mentoring doesn’t stop during social isolation. Volunteer information is posted to bigbrothersvancouver.com.