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Looking for a Good Read? Big Sister Recommends

Big Sister Recommends

Chances are, you’re still spending most of your free time inside. While you’re waiting for the weather to get warmer, not why head to the library or check out Amazon for these titles about the power of mentoring:

Stand by Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today’s Youth by Jean E. Rhodes.

From Booklist:

Rhodes, a psychology professor, examines the popularity of mentoring programs and their effectiveness in improving the prospects of disadvantaged youth. She particularly focuses on research involving the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, the best-known youth-mentoring organization, showing that at-risk youth who are mentored through structured programs are more likely to succeed.

The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent People Recall Their Mentors by Matilda Raffa Cuomo, Editor with foreword by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Amazon Description:

At some point in the odyssey of our lives, most of us have been affected by caring adults who made a difference: their advice, their guidance, their example led us to encounter the world. The Person Who Changed My Life is a collection of essays in which individuals who have distinguished themselves in their fields write about the men and women who served as their mentors. Among the contributors are Walter Cronkite, Larry King, Dr. Arthur Caliandro, Elie Wiesel, Marian Wright Edelman, Julia Child, Gloria Estefan, and Dina Merrill.

Because You Believed in Me: Mentors and Protégés Who Shaped Our World by Marcia McMullen and Patricia Miller.

From the Publisher:

Because You Believed in Me uses stories of real people—Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Claude Monet and Eugene Boudin, Ulysses S.Grant and Abraham Lincoln—to demonstrate the powerful benefits of mentoring. The relationships of these and other historical pairs are explored throughout this book to illuminate the inherent value of mentoring. What if Eugene Boudin had not encouraged Monet to paint in the out of doors? Could anyone else have inspired him to abandon studio painting and venture into the beauty of landscapes? As with this case, mentors open worlds of possibilities for their proteges. Even brilliant people need heroes.

Or check out a couple new books from the New York Times bestseller list that are focused on women and girls:

Read them already? Comment below and tell us what you think! What other books would you like to suggest for a good read?

“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Invest in Girls

Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

Illustration by Gerard Dubois for TIME

The benefits are so obvious, you have to wonder why we haven’t paid attention. Less than 2¢ of every development dollar goes to girls — and that is a victory compared with a few years ago, when it was more like half a cent. Roughly 9 of 10 youth programs are aimed at boys. One reason for this is that when it comes to lifting up girls, we don’t know as much about how to do it. We have to start by listening to girls, which much of the world is not culturally disposed to do.—To Fight Poverty, Invest in Girls by Nancy Gibbs, Time, Feb. 14, 2011

According to the article from which that quote was taken, fewer than 1 in 5 girls make it to secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly half are married by the time they are 18; 1 in 7 girls across the developing world marry before they are 15 and get pregnant shortly thereafter. The leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 worldwide is not accident or violence or disease; it is complications from pregnancy. Girls under 15 are up to five times more likely to die while having children than women in their 20s. Their babies are more likely to die as well.

At Big Sister, we know that investing in girls locally is just as crucial as investing in them globally. Consider this: In 2008, 595 children were born to teenage mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 in Massachusetts, according to a study by The Alan Guttmacher Institute, as reported by the Mass Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. Big Sister has been “lifting up” girls since 1951. We encourage girls to live up to their full potential by providing them with strong female mentors. These are women who most often are simply there to listen; the point at which Gibbs urges us to begin.

There is no doubt that whether it is in Malawi or right here in Boston, we need to increase the investment made in girls. That investment is one of time, of money, and of open ears, hearts, and minds when it comes to addressing the specific needs of girls. We can also encourage girls to invest in each other. That is the mission of Girl Up, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that Gibbs references in her article. If you are a Big Sister, we encourage you to visit your Little Sister. Perhaps it will spark a conversation about girls supporting girls locally and globally…and get others to start talking about what it really means to invest in girls.

To read Time Magazine’s number one most emailed article, “To Fight Poverty, Invest in Girls” click here.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

– Margaret Mead

For more information on how to become a Big Sister, apply on our website at or call 617.236.8060.

Everything I need to know I learned in middle school by guest blogger Deborah Re, Big Sister’s CEO

Admittedly it’s been a long time since I was in the seventh grade.  I grew up in Roslindale and attended a local K-8 school.  Now, as the head of a girl-serving organization, I was curious to find out what was on the minds of adolescent girls growing up in Boston today. I also wanted to actually experience our Group Mentoring program and how it “worked.”  Well, I heard what was on the minds of young girls and I know first-hand why our Group mentoring program is successful. But, I learned a whole lot more than that.  

Being a Big Sister is about being in the moment; it’s being totally real, authentic, and present to whatever is said or whatever you are feeling. If you truly want to connect with adolescent girls, then you must be ready to give and to receive; you must have an open mind and, an open heart.

There were nine girls sitting around a table the first day I walked into the room. They were all chatting, talking over each other, laughing loudly; the sound was high-pitched and loud. There was one girl who sat by herself putting her hair in a pony tail.  I sat down quietly in the available chair and then it hit me: I was nervous. As the CEO of Big Sister, I often tell women who are thinking of becoming a Big Sister that you don’t need special skills, that age is irrelevant and that just being there to listen, encourage and support girls is all that matters. Yet there I was silently telling myself that I was too old, that I didn’t know what music they listened to, what TV shows they watched, what books or movies they liked; and, the message that bothered me the most: the girls didn’t look like me.  How will I connect with them?  How could I, a successful, confident woman who champions diversity and inclusion feel that ethnicity, race, or age could get in the way of a connection between me and a young girl? I was creating a barrier before I even had the chance to talk to the girls. I felt unsettled.

I met with my group at a middle school in Roxbury every week on Thursday afternoons for 90 minutes. After the girls ate their lunch, we began our activities with a check-in. Each girl would tell the group how they felt by giving a number from 1-10.  

“I’m a 5 today because I had a fight with my mother.” 

“I’m a 9 because I’m going to the movies with my friend this weekend.”

“I’m a 2 because…”

After the check-in, the social worker leading the group initiated games that were fun for the girls but also unveiled the issues they may be dealing with:  body image, relationships, conflict resolution, self-esteem, and puberty. These activities were certainly informative and helped the girls to make healthy choices in their lives. But, what struck me the most were the questions that they asked me directly.

The questions weren’t asked in rapid-fire succession, but over the course of our time together. They were simple and telling.

“Deb, do you get paid to come here every week?”

“No” I responded.

“Why do you come here?”

“To be with you.”

Another girl responded “Wow, that’s cool. You are coming here to hang out with us!” 

“Where do you live?” one girl asked.

“Jamaica Plain.”

“You mean near here? You live near here?”


There were other questions about the choices I made in my life, the fact that I was married yet didn’t have children, the fact that I paid someone to put the “yellow stripes” in my hair or that I went to college and now work full time. We were equally curious about each other and more questions led to more dialogue between us.

“I wish I was smart” a girl named LaToya said under her breath one day. I didn’t know what to say. How trite would it sound if I said “You are smart, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not.” I said nothing. The following week, she was on my team. Our goal was to build the tallest structure that could stand on its own using just straws. The four of us began making the building by connecting the straws, but realized that we didn’t know how to make it stand on its own. Then LaToya said, “I know, I’ll make a drawing first.” She took a piece of paper and drew a building that had four corners and was strengthened by straws across each square. We used her drawing to build not only the tallest building, but also the strongest. I looked at her and said “You made this possible. You took the initiative to create the drawing and worked as part of the team to make your concept a reality. Only a smart person can do that.” She beamed.

Our Group is over for now. I know that these girls will hold our time together in their heads and in their hearts. I know that they now think differently about themselves. I now have a purple string around my wrist. LaToya tied my string, and I tied hers. We made a pact to not forget each other or all that we learned from each other.

I know that I think differently about myself now. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words often ring in my ears and today, this is what I am hearing: Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.

A girl like me

We have always worked to create mentoring experiences that affirm the many aspects of girls’ identities and our Big Sisters play an integral part in bringing this value to life!  They inspire girls to believe in, and value, themselves despite the false and unattainable standards of beauty and the low expectations of intellectual achievement so pervasive in the media and in our culture at large.

When a Big Sister celebrates her Little Sister’s interest in arts and crafts she is affirming her creative identity.  When she shows interest in her Little Sister’s ethnic and racial background this affirms her cultural identity. Spending time in her Little Sister’s neighborhood affirms her community identity.  These affirmations of Little Sisters’ many selves serve as armor against the negative influences that girls still endure today.  The depth of these negative influences is evident in the video, A Girl Like Me: color is more than skin deep for African-American girls struggling to define themselves.  In this short video clip you will hear girls speak candidly about the competing expectations they are managing from their family, friends and media about how they should look as African-American girls.

Making sense of “The Gloucester 18”

Last week, staff members from Big Sister had the opportunity to attend a screening of The Gloucester 18, hosted by the Mass Alliance on Teen Pregnancy.  The documentary billed itself as “the definitive investigation into the Gloucester pregnancy pact.” It was the antithesis of the highly glamorized Lifetime movie, The Pregnancy Pact, and it supported the theory that there never was any pact at all.

The Gloucester 18 explores the lives of the girls allegedly involved in the pact and aims at getting to the truth of what happened in Gloucester.  The interviews were often heart-wrenching—girls who ranged from tentative to elated at their status as new mothers and the struggles and triumphs that accompany it.  It was suggested that the national attention drawn by “The Gloucester 18” was due to the perceived unexpectedness of the story.  These girls were white and living in a sleepy fishing town on the north shore of Massachusetts.  Teen pregnancy is often presented by the media as an urban issue—or a very rural one—and one that far more prevalent among black and Latina girls in low-income communities. The reality is that 45% of the teen births in Massachusetts in 2007 were among the white, non-Hispanic population, making it the highest of any ethnicity in the state (according to data provided by the Mass Alliance on Teen Pregnancy).

However, one thing was clear:  there was no pact; there was simply a group of girls who could have benefitted from the care and support of someone who could show them more options than teen motherhood.  In the panel discussion afterward we learned that there is in fact a mentoring program now in place for girls in Gloucester (which is outside of Big Sister’s service area).  But teen pregnancy and a mentor’s role in preventing it are not new. The fact is, teen pregnancy is on the rise in Massachusetts and across the nation, and has become almost in vogue again in regard to the attention it is receiving (MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, anyone?)  It’s a topic we often discuss at Big Sister and one on which our social workers often counsel our volunteers (“My Little Sister is telling me her friends are all starting to have sex, how do I respond?”).

We want to encourage you to see this film, to bring your Little Sister or another teen girl you care about. We also encourage you to keep the conversation about teen pregnancy going.  Be that person in a girl’s life who is caring, supportive, and non-judgmental.  Let her know she has many options for her future and nurture her strengths.  How do you think a mentor can help in preventing teen pregnancy?

Is “mean girls” demeaning girls? Guest blogger Sharon Daura weighs in

Sharon Daura is a Big Sister staff member who leads the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley’s Intentional Mentoring initiative.  This capacity building program provides training and support around gender-sensitive programming to girl-serving organziations throughout Boston.

I listened in my car recently as two well-known radio talk show hosts discussed the topic of bullying.  The recent and tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince, the fifteen year old girl who was being bullied at her high school, prompted the discussion.  Both used the term “mean girls” repeatedly, while one was convinced the answer lies in prosecuting the girls who bullied Phoebe.  I gripped my steering wheel and waited for what I knew would eventually come.  A few seconds later, one of them delivered the inevitable: “Girls are worse than boys.”

We know by now that both boys and girls engage in relational violence and aggression and both suffer as victims.  However, the issue deserves a gender-sensitive perspective, especially since the current media discourse about bullying is placing gender in the spotlight.  The “girls are worse than boys” opinion is a popular one.  Yet, what does it really say about our beliefs about gender and behavior?

Society gives girls plenty of messages about where their value lies, which in turn equips them with the tools to devalue one another.  It’s no mystery why Facebook pages become venues for harassment that target girls’ appearance, weight, and sexual behavior.  Viewers of The Bachelor can tune in as women compete with one another for the ultimate prize: a man.  Girls will tell you a similar story–most of the conflicts start with competition over a boy.  When girls use language to hurt one another, they access the very same sexist language they hear on a regular basis.  It’s important to shed traditional beliefs about girls’ behavior and realize that while they are capable of violence and aggression, they are also not biologically predisposed to it.  The labels, like “mean girls,” offer very little in the way of solutions.  They also demean girls and contribute to the very problem we are trying to address

Dr. Lyn Mikel Brown, author of Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls, urges us to consider the ways our culture “nurtures and reinforces meanness between girls.”  As we do that, perhaps we should also nurture a new kind of culture where we talk to girls about anger and equip them with tools like assertiveness.  We could reinforce a dynamic of respect between girls and provide them with examples of women supporting other women, on television and in real life.  Rather than judging girls’ behavior as “worse than boys,” we could focus on our own language and behavior as adults. Let’s start here: Are we willing to retire the term “mean girls”?

Close to home

It seems that every month there’s a new school for girls being built in a developing African nation by a philanthropic-minded celebrity. It is a direct result of the belief—which has received more attention in recent years than ever before—that if you take care of a community’s girls, the entire community thrives. It is the basis for the viral sensation, The Girl Effect. It is the impetus behind a recent blog posting by Queen Rania of Jordan. It is the mission of Oprah’s school in South Africa. It is the theme of the noted new book, Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The thought process is simple: invest in a girl by giving her the tools she needs to succeed. When she has those tools, she can: avoid early pregnancy, get a proper education, become a contributing member of society. She has a better chance of discontinuing the cycle of poverty that is often the result of a lack of education or an early pregnancy.

But what about the girls here? Literally here, in our own backyard? Yes, girls in developing nations have drastically less resources than those available to girls in this country.  However, does that fact make girls in this country less deserving of an investment in their success? These girls are in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. They are also in South Boston, Brookline, and Waltham. They are the 3,000 girls we serve annually through our mentoring programs and the more than 300 girls waiting to be matched with a Big Sister.

When you support programs that are designed to give girls the tools they need to succeed, you empower our entire community. When we make an investment in girls—whether it is time or money—it sends a message to girls that they matter. When girls know they matter their confidence grows; they see more options available to them. When girls are armed with confidence they make healthier decisions: they stay in school and often do better, they avoid early pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse. They have the chance to avoid repeating the cycle of poverty. They have the power to believe that there is nothing they cannot do, become, or achieve.

As the saying goes, we should think globally, act locally. So, what do you think? Why is it important to Boston’s overall health to make an investment in girls?

Big Sister goes back to school!

Have you ever thought about becoming a Big Sister, but didn’t think you had the time to make the commitment?  Did you know that Big Sister Association offers the opportunity to volunteer on your lunch break during the week?  Our School-Based Mentoring program offers the opportunity for women with busy schedules to mentor a girl at various Boston schools near where they work.  Now that schools are back in session, we’re looking for more women to become School-Based Big Sisters!

Instead of eating lunch at your desk or grabbing a quick bite from the fast food place around the corner, you could spend 45 minutes to an hour, one day a week throughout the school year, making a difference in the life of an elementary school age girl.  School-Based Big and Little Sisters meet at the girl’s school during her lunch time and do everything from playing board games and reading books, to arts and crafts, shooting hoops, or just talking about what’s going on in the Little Sister’s life.

It may seem simple, but the impact that your attention, support, and consistency have on your Little Sister is big.  “I think the Big Sister program is great for the girls in my room…I know all the girls really look forward to the days their Big Sisters visit and always come back feeling really great.  It is also important that these girls, who are often shy in class, have a time where they don’t have to hold back or feel nervous, but can be the center of attention,” said Joanna Pfister, a fourth grade teacher at the Hurley Elementary School in the South End. 

Additionally, according to our Program Outcome Evaluations, which are completed by the girl’s teacher:

  • 79% of School-Based Little Sisters demonstrated improved trust toward others
  • 79% of School-Based Little Sisters also showed improved class participation
  • 75% of School-Based Little Sisters showed an improved ability to use school resources

According to a study published in March 2009 by Dr. Jean Rhodes of UMass Boston, which examines the impact of mentoring with regard to gender, girls who have a School-Based Big Sister show greater academic gains.  Girls with School-Based Big Sisters also demonstrate improved peer relationships and lower stress levels (The Role of Gender in Mentoring: A Three-Part Study, Rhodes and Litchfield, March 2009).

Now is the time to make a difference. Big Sister offers our School-Based Mentoring program at schools right near your office!  If you are interested in learning more about becoming a School-Based Big Sister, click here.