Youth Mentors Facing a Shortage of Male Volunteers

Courtesy of Hahm GahngStudent mentor Hahm Gahng poses with his little, the student he mentors, on Loyola's campus.

One Chicago mentorship program has instituted a waiting list for the first time in its history because not enough young men, specifically men of color, are volunteering. Many Loyola students participate in this program through the Loyola service organization “Loyola 4 Chicago.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago is a mentorship organization for young children in the Chicago area. Students between kindergarten and eighth grade, or “littles,” are paired with an older mentor, or a “big,” who is in high school or college. Bigs do various activities with their littles every week and bond over simple activities, such as playing a game of basketball or coloring pictures together.

The projected number of boys on the waiting list to receive big brothers is currently in the hundreds, according to Brown. The number fluctuates daily and the list is expected to grow longer. In order to fix this, the organization has launched a campaign called “30 Male Bigs in 30 Days” to encourage more men to become mentors. The shortage of bigs is mostly in neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The organization has 26 returning bigs who are Loyola students and about 14 bigs still in the enrollment process from Loyola. By October, the organization aimed to have a total of 40 Loyola bigs, according to Kristine Brown, the marketing and communications manager of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

However, only five of the returning and enrolled bigs from Loyola are male. This disparity in the ratio of big sisters to big brothers is an ongoing problem for the organization, according to Brown.  

“We always have a lot of young males who enroll in the program, but the problem is that we don’t have any mentors to pair them with,” Brown said.

The “30 Days” campaign has been launched, but the process of finding more male mentors hasn’t been easy. Even when male bigs become available, they still have to go through a rigorous screening process to ensure both the safety of the little and the potential personality match between the big and the little. The process involves a general application and a formal background check.

The organization is also facing a shortage of men of color. Of the 40 Loyola students who volunteer, 19 identify as people of color. Brown identified the largest demographic of littles in the organization as young African-American boys.

About 64 percent of the littles come from single-parent households, a majority of which only have a mother. Because of factors such as the incarceration rate of minorities and gang violence in Chicago, Brown said many young African-American boys don’t have a positive male role model to interact with on a daily basis.

Brown said the number of male African-American mentors is slim, which she said was disappointing.

“It’s so important for these kids to have a role model who is of the same background as them because it shows them they don’t have to succumb to the negative influences around them,” Brown said. “It tells them that they can have positive opportunities in their lives.”

In order to draw more men of color into the organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters may also launch what’s called a “barbershop campaign” during October. This type of campaign has been utilized by other Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations across the country and involves recruiting young men through partnerships with barbershops in minority neighborhoods.

Brown said that the barbershops in these neighborhoods are usually where young men of color congregate socially, which is why the organization wants to push advertisement through these businesses. The organization is hopeful that launching this campaign in addition to “30 Days” will help raise their demographic numbers.

Although there aren’t many male mentors, one male Loyola big is hoping to draw other men to the organization by sharing his experience and the impact that becoming a “big brother” has had on his life.

Hahm Gahng is a 23-year-old rising junior studying special education at Loyola. Gahng got his start with the organization through a fair held by Loyola 4 Chicago last year, when he asked the organization what sites they needed more volunteers for. Since then, Gahng has been working with the same eighth grade boy for a few months, and has enjoyed watching him mature and thrive through his involvement with the program.

“It’s funny when I say that I have a boy in eighth grade and people respond with ‘ugh,’” Gahng said. “I think middle schoolers get an undeserved bad reputation. [My little] is not bad, he’s very funny and cool. I’ve gotten to see him grow and change from a troublemaker to someone who is a lot more mature and it’s made me very happy to see that.”

Gahng has noticed the shrinking number of males and said something needs to be done to encourage more men to volunteer. He said that of his total volunteer group of 15, only him and one other volunteer identify as male.  

“I think that [having no male volunteers] is the general situation in [Big Brothers Big Sisters], and when there’s few male volunteers, there’s even fewer minority male volunteers,” Gahng said. “We hear a lot about ‘caring mothers,’ but not so much of caring fathers. I feel like it’s really hard for male students, especially male minorities, to have a male role model who is caring and willing to listen to them.”

Gahng hopes that as the gender stigma surrounding men being portrayed as caregivers fades away, more young men will feel encouraged to volunteer as big brothers.

Brown said that the organization is working tirelessly to match the boys on the waiting list with bigs and is hopeful that the launch of these new campaigns will ease the shortage of volunteers and get more littles matched with male mentors.

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