TRURO – When someone turns 40, it’s often a big deal.
But when an agency reaches that milestone, it can sometimes seem like a small number. This year, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colchester is marking its 40th anniversary of helping children in Colchester County.
“Forty really is a small number when you look at it, but when you think of all those children that have had a big brother or big sister over the years, that number is in the thousands for sure,” said Michelle Misener, who retires from the executive director role on Oct. 12.
Of the agency’s 40-year history, Misener has been involved for the past 35.
“The record keeping wasn’t the greatest back then, but based on our current numbers, those we have helped would be in the thousands.”
The agency started four decades ago when a group of community-minded people came together because they thought there might be a need. Misener said a questionnaire was sent out to schools to determine how many children of single parent families were in the area.
“They determined there was a large number, and that number was growing enough to support Big Brothers Big Sisters,” said Misener.
Originally the agency started out as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Truro, however expanded to Colchester five years later. Bill Spencer was the first fulltime executive director of the agency.
“When I look at the differences between now and back then, some things are the same, but some are quite different,” said Misener. “Our philosophy now is that every child or young person can use a mentor. That philosophy has never changed, but our mentoring programs have.”
When it first started in the area, the agency focused on Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Big Couples. But the agency found themselves with a waiting list they couldn’t meet, and in 1995 spread their wings and expanded their offerings.
“The programs had become available nationally. They had done research and discovered school-based mentoring programs were very successful in the impact it had on kids, and Big Brothers Big Sisters thought it would be a way to recruit volunteers as well,” she said.
School mentoring programs started, which Misener said allowed volunteers to give up time during the week, with no commitment of evening or weekend hours.
The in-school program sees high school students mentor those in younger grades, and an after school mentoring program is also available.
“The in-school program is one of the biggest successes,” said the executive director. “It’s becoming really successful as it helps in molding our future volunteers. They’re still young but they still have that experience and it cultivates volunteers for the future.”
Group programs, such as Go Girl and Game On, help youth with a number of skills and tackle various issues, from empowerment to defeating bullying and negative body images.
“We’re always adding in whatever current issued young people are facing,” Misener said of the two program.
Another major change over the years is the fundraising the agency does. Locally, a weekly 50/50 draw known as Big Bucks has been so successful for the agency that, alongside the Travelotto ticket sales, they haven’t had to host many other events.
Thanks to the success of Big Bucks, the New Year will see a new home for the agency as it moves into the former Molly’s Dairy Bar on Highway 311.
With Misener’s retirement, Nick Sharpe will take over the executive director position. He’s been working alongside Misener since Sept. 10.
“I really believe in the power of mentoring and the impact these programs can have, not just on an individual but a community as a whole,” said Sharpe.
It was back in 2008 when Sharpe was living in Pictou County when he got his first taste of Big Brothers Big Sisters as a summer student.
“That’s really where I found my passion for non-profit management,” said Sharpe, who previously worked with the Colchester-East Hants Hospice Society and Rath Eastlink Community Centre.
When he moved to Truro, Sharpe quickly became a Big Brother, and joined the board of directors four years ago.
He said his vision for the agency is one shared by the staff and board of directors – they will become a destination for families, especially when they move into their new building.
“We know that when we have mentors, youth have more of a chance of reaching their full potential,” said Sharpe.
Over the years, the agency was focused on their own programs, however their resources now allow them to help other organizations. They have a bursary program and contributed to a room at the library in Truro, and started a Healthy Living Fund.
“It’s a whole different world altogether,” said Misener. “There are a couple thousand youth we’ve helped outside of our own programs.”
The agency is also breaking down financial barriers and now offers reimbursements to their volunteers for activities they do with their ‘littles.’
“Two of the biggest things are time and money and we want to do everything we can so those don’t have to be barriers,” said Sharpe.
With her retirement, Misener is looking forward to enjoying the simple pleasures in life. She’ll travel to visit family, including a new grandchild, and will enjoy the freedom of having more time to do the little things in life, such as walking, photography, and reading more books.
“But I’m walking away with the sense of having had the most rewarding job in the world,” she said, noting seeing smiles on children’s faces, not just on match day, but months down the road has been fulfilling.
“They are so happy and seem so much more confident. It’s inspiring every day.”