Cheryl Stiles took seven-year-old Samantha on her first trip to the beach and drove her out to visit the Jelly Belly Factory. On weekends, the pair walk Stiles’ dog, go to the library or bake cookies. For Samantha’s birthday, they celebrated together at Chuck E. Cheese.
Stiles, a senior, isn’t Samantha’s grandmother or mother. She is Samantha’s “Big Sister.”
Samantha and Stiles were paired up a year ago by Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area (BBBSBA), a local chapter of one of the nation’s biggest youth mentoring organizations.
Samantha lives in Richmond with her mother, younger sister and older brother. The environment is very loving, Stiles said, but the mother has to support the three children on her own. Both Samantha and her older brother have mentors with BBBSBA and, once she’s older, her little sister will, too.
Stiles, whom Samantha calls “Miss Cheryl,” thinks she gives Samantha a different perspective on the world around her. In turn, Samantha gives Stiles opportunities to have some fun.
“I wouldn’t go to the movies to see The Smurfs,” Stiles said, laughing. “She’s just such a loving child. There’s so much I get from being with her.”
BBBSBA has about 750 children and teenagers in the Bay Area waiting for a mentor. Many are African Americans or Latinos hoping to find a mentor of the same ethnicity and about 80 percent of these youth are boys, said the group’s CEO Marcia Hodges.
About 85 percent of the children come from low-income housing, 21 percent are in foster care and 19 percent have at least one parent who is incarcerated.
“We put a caring adult in the life of a child who really needs it,” Hodges said.
There are 21 children on the waiting list in Richmond, 46 in Oakland and nine in Berkeley. Mentors are not asked to spend a lot of money on the youth they mentor, but rather to spend time with their “littles” doing day-to-day activities like washing the car or going for a hike.
Littles are between the ages of six and 16, and mentors must be over 21.
“We want [the youth] to feel safe,” Hodges said. “Just knowing they’re someplace safe can be a major positive impact on the child. Many of these kids haven’t been out of their neighborhoods, haven’t seen the bay, haven’t seen San Francisco. It’s opening up a world of opportunities.”
The group also needs to raise money to make mentor/mentee matches.
“People often ask us why we need money,” Hodges said. “We need to make sure [mentors are] carefully screened. When a big and little are first meeting each other, it’s kind of like a blind date. Yet they’re expected to see each other two to three times a month for the rest of the year.”
It costs about $2,000 to make and maintain a match for the first year and about $1,500 for each year after, said Hodges. This cost provides mentor training, activities for the pair and support from professional staff, among other things.
Stiles, who works for the UC Berkeley Center for Executive Education and was formerly a program director for a mentoring program at Holy Names University, had always wanted to be a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters and but just applied for the first time a year ago.
Stiles said she and Samantha are a good match because of Samantha’s age. Because she’s older, Stiles wasn’t sure if she could keep up with a teenage mentee. Stiles does not have grandchildren of her own, and thinks of Samantha almost as a granddaughter.
“We had a sleepover and we made homemade cookies,” Stiles said. “We sat on the couch, put a blanket over us, the dog was laying down and we watched Nickelodeon.”
Stiles works full time, so she sees Samantha about once every other week.
“You just have to have time, that’s a commitment,” Stiles said. “But it’s just about trying to coordinate and have quality time each time that you spend. I’m going to pick Samantha up this Saturday morning, maybe we’ll get on BART and go to the city and maybe walk around Golden Gate Park or go to the zoo or something like that.”
Stiles’s reason for choosing to be a part of BBBSBA is simple: “I believe in education and mentoring and I just think it’s important,” she said. “Even though I’m older, there’s a lot I can teach them.”