By Gale Nelson, President and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami (BBBSM) launched its Bigs in Blue initiative 11 years ago, allowing the organization to incorporate law enforcement officials in its one-to-one volunteer mentoring programs. Participating youth gain a positive role model, which improves their educational success, helps them avoid risky behaviors, and inspires them with greater confidence. The program also gives kids the opportunity to see members of the police force as more than just a badge.
At its core, the Bigs in Blue program aims to build lasting relationships based on mutual trust and respect between law enforcement, youth, and their families. About 96 percent of our “Littles,” as we call the children paired up with law enforcement mentors, are from families of African American or Hispanic descent.
The program is close to my heart, as I benefited from the power of mentoring when I was young. My late uncle, a deputy sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, was an important mentor for me while growing up. The flag draped over his casket at his funeral sits in my office and serves as a daily reminder of the opportunity a mentor offers to develop the potential of teens and children.
We’ve supported about 1,000 one-to-one matches between Littles and law enforcement officials and first responders since the program’s inception. In the previous fiscal year, we partnered with 11 police departments in Miami-Dade County to mentor 137 youth.
I recently spoke to the Miami-Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police. My message was that the program’s focus on building trust between our youth and police officers is the best approach to make our communities safer. Bigs in Blue opens up a new way to expose children and their families to the world of law enforcement. Teens and kids who participate get a birds-eye view of the inner workings of a police department and, as a result, gain a greater understanding of law enforcement’s role and responsibilities.
So now, in light of everything taking place in the streets of America’s cities, these kids don’t need to be convinced that their Big Brother or Big Sister is on their side; they already know. This increased trust works both ways.
And while we started the program to build relationships, it has become a workforce development pathway. For example, one former Bigs in Blue participant, Jordon, is a sophomore at Florida State University and studying to become a law enforcement officer. She remains in touch with her “Big,” the police chief of the city of Miami Gardens, and refers to her as “my chief” when talking about her to friends and family.
A recent survey conducted by the Miami-Dade County Juvenile Services Department revealed that a majority of the youth served by the agency aspire to a career in law enforcement. In light of the tension between large segments of society and the police, we need young men and women to pursue law enforcement careers. And by establishing relationships based on mutual trust and respect, Bigs in Blue represents a vital building block in that effort.
BBBSM offers several options for law enforcement officials and police departments to act as one-to-one youth mentors:
- Community-based mentoring. Bigs and Littles share a variety of outings and activities at least twice a month for 4 hours each time. Community-based mentoring, which can take place during evenings or on weekends, represents the core of BBBSM programs.
- Site-based mentoring. Bigs and Littles meet either during the day at school or at the agency’s Carnival Center for Excellence after school for 1 hour a week. Activities under site-based mentoring can include reading, board games, sports, computer games, homework help, or a simple conversation.
- School-to-work mentoring. Police departments provide high school students with career readiness preparation by hosting a group of at least 10 students monthly for a formal curriculum covering basic job and life skills, interpersonal communication in the workplace, and goal setting. Afterward, teens meet individually with their Bigs for 3 hours of job shadowing and mentoring. Four police departments have established school-to-work mentoring programs with BBBSM.
OJJDP funds Bigs in Blue across Big Brothers Big Sisters affiliates nationally through its Mentoring Opportunities for Youth Initiative. OJJDP truly is making a wise investment in this evidence-based program.
Bigs in Blue works on many levels—strengthening the emotional development of the Littles, improving interpersonal relationships between youth and law enforcement, and establishing a career path for participants. Providing an at-risk child with a mentor is priceless. Perhaps the clearest sign of success is hearing a Big say of their Little, “She is part of my family.”
Read an OJJDP-sponsored report about the long-term developmental impacts of BBBS’ community-based mentoring program.
Points of view or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.