‘Big Brothers’ Can Have a Lasting Impact on Kids, Study Finds

Timothy Witchet was just a kid in Houston when he saw a TV show that would, in a roundabout way, change his life.

It was an episode of the sitcom “The King of Queens” wherein protagonist Doug Heffernan signs up to be a “big brother” to a boy named Jason. The portly Doug joins a 10K race to impress his less-than-enthusiastic protégé but—cue the laugh track—ends up in the fetal position off in the grass. While Doug fails to finish the race, he praises Jason for coming in 48th place. “You’re a winner,” he tells the boy.

After the credits rolled, Witchet told his mom that he wanted to be part of that program, and she signed him up for Big Brothers Big Sisters. At 10 years old, Witchet found himself getting up early to volunteer at the Chevron Houston Marathon with his own “big brother,” financial adviser Bradley Dennison. The pair spent time reading at the library and volunteering, and Witchet remembers the sweeping views he took in during visits to Dennison’s high-rise office.

Bradley Dennison (left) and his “little brother” Timothy Witchet celebrate Witchet’s graduation from Texas Southern University in May 2019. They were paired through Big Brothers Big Sisters when Witchet was in fifth grade.

Witchet is now a pre-kindergarten teacher and recently wrapped up his master’s degree in education leadership. Looking back, he says the experiences he had under Dennison’s wing had a lasting impact.

“I graduated with honors from college, I’m teaching now, and it’s because of the actions that Bradley took,” Witchet says. “The insightfulness and the sincerity he put into his mentorship with me was so foundational because, had I not known about what life looks like outside what I saw on a daily basis—yes, I probably would have gone to college, but I wouldn’t have had the level of drive or ambitions that I had.”

By the Numbers

That positive impact isn’t just anecdotal. A randomized controlled trial that followed nearly 1,400 children over 18 months shows that kids who were part of Big Brothers Big Sisters had better outcomes than their peers in the control group. Specifically, they were less likely to be arrested for violent behavior and less likely to use drugs or alcohol.

The report entitled “The Youths Relationships Study” was conducted by researchers at University of Illinois Chicago and published last fall.

Researchers reported that Big Brothers Big Sisters mentees in the study were 54 percent less likely to have been arrested and 41 percent less likely to have engaged in substance use. They were also less likely to have been disciplined in school for misbehavior (like hitting or bullying).

The federal government expressed some hope last year that mentorship and tutoring programs could play a role in helping students make up for academic ground lost during pandemic-forced remote schooling.

The study did not, however, find any statistical evidence of “little brothers” and “little sisters” getting a boost to their mental health or academic performances. Researchers speculate this could be a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on mentor-mentee relationships, particularly because it limited their ability to meet in person.

While researchers said the positive impacts of the community-based mentoring (CBM) program were relatively small, they were not unimportant.

“First, given the well-scaled status of the BBBS CBM program, even modest-sized benefits take on greater significance when considered in the context of the relatively large numbers of youth who may be experiencing them through participation in the program,” researchers wrote.

They also believe that the positive effects of mentorship on behavior and substance use by kids could have larger societal benefits down the road. Looking at Big Brothers Big Sisters’ effects alone, rather than in tandem with other support programs, could be muting impact, researchers added.

Meanwhile, local chapters of the nonprofit continue to recruit volunteers nationwide to serve their waitlists of children hoping to be matched with a mentor.

A subsequent report from this study will examine outcomes over a four-year follow-up period.

Big Brother and Advocate

Dennison recalls a Big Brothers Big Sisters metaphor for the mentor-mentee relationship. Using a mason jar full of cookie ingredients, the organization draws a comparison with the kids. They have all the ingredients to be great, and mentors help them figure out how to put it all together.

Early in their relationship, Dennison says Witchet was a strong math student but needed help with reading. Dennison began taking Witchet to the library during their hangouts, where the boy read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and wrote book reports for Dennison until he improved over time.

“I refused to accept [his grades] because I saw what his ingredients were,” Dennison says.

Witchet says it was Dennison who exposed him to college, taking him to campus tours in Texas and to Dennison’s alma mater at Louisiana State University. The young Witchet thought chemistry might be his path to college at the time, so Dennison arranged a meeting for him with the chair of the university’s chemistry department.

“It was transformative throughout those adolescent years because it kept me on track,” Witchet says. “I didn’t have a stellar academic record in middle school and freshman year of high school. Bradley gave me a firm wakeup call like, ‘Do you want to go to college? What do you see for yourself?’”

Dennison continued to advocate for Witchet in high school, and helped Witchet get into a special program for Big Brothers Big Sisters students to get college counseling starting in their sophomore year. Through that program, Witchet met a guidance counselor who helped him improve his grades and focus on his college goals.

“It was nothing I did, but I was able to put him in a position where he could learn from someone smarter than me,” Dennison says. “His wings just spread.”

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