Editor's note: This story first appeared in Community News.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Chattanooga is helping take "career day" to a new level. Last year, the nonprofit mentorship program launched "Beyond School Walls," taking the format of its school-based programs, in which adult volunteers, or "bigs," meet with student "littles" at their schools, and applying it to the workplace.
Littles are matched with a personal mentor, whom they meet at their workplace once a week to play games and get to know each other. Once a month, the employer organizes a "career day" for the students to learn about the employer's career opportunities.
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"It helps as I'm growing up," said Camren, a sixth-grader matched with Jeriel Allison, a business continuity executive at EPB. "He talks to me about life and what I want to be when I grow up," explained Camren, who wants to be a lawyer.
EPB is one of three companies participating in the program this year. EPB Vice President of Community Development Hodgen Mainda said it gives adults who may not have the opportunity to be a mentor because of other commitments a chance to do so during the workday.
Beyond School Walls was piloted last year by Unum, which had 30 employees partner with Orchard Knob Middle School seventh-graders. This year, 30 Orchard Knob eighth-graders, some of whom are reconnecting with their mentors from last year, are paired with Unum volunteers.
Unum funds the program for its employees, and Big Brothers Big Sisters received a $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Chattanooga and $5,000 from a private donor to fund the program at EPB and the city of Chattanooga. Program expenses include student transportation on school buses, mentor background checks, staff to oversee the program and liability insurance for mentors and their matches, said Emily Barrow, program manager and director of site-based learning for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Chattanooga.
Across the three employers, around 60 students have been matched with mentors, Barrow said. Student participants are all middle school students. EPB partners with sixth-graders from East Lake Academy, and the city with seventh-graders from Dalewood Middle.
Barrow said the age group was chosen in order to introduce students to careers and familiarize them with the educational requirements needed to achieve professional success early in their school years, all while building a strong and supportive mentoring relationship.
Big Brothers Big Sisters, which works closely with area schools, identifies students who could benefit from the program and sends application packets home to involve parents in the process. Mentors who apply must pass a background check and undergo training. Both students and mentors are interviewed by a case manager from Big Brothers Big Sisters who then matches them based on their personalities and interests, Barrow said.
Case managers continue to meet with volunteers and students to get feedback on the program and their experiences.
Barrow said feedback from both sides has been very positive.
"You can see in their faces how excited they are to be there," she said of the students.
"Our employees have been very appreciative of us as an employer in seeing the value of the program," said EPB's Mainda, who recommends the program to other companies or agencies that want to benefit young people in the community as well as their own employees.
Barrow said Big Brothers Big Sisters looks for companies or agencies that can provide volunteers for a minimum of 10 matches and are willing to let employees take time out of their workdays to participate.
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