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New mentor program eyed for area youth

A longtime mentor and administrator with Big Brothers BigSisters of Mississippi is working to create a new mentoring programfor Lincoln County youth after the former organization closed themajority of its programs earlier this summer.

If all goes according to plan, Mentees to Mentors Ministry ofLincoln County will fill the void left by BBBS in late July whensignificant financial restraints forced it to close all but four ofits Mississippi programs. Brookhaven’s Maxine Jones, who up untilweeks ago served as the BBBS Assistant Director for Programs forMississippi/Program Manager for the Southern Region, has personallyemployed a grant-writer to seek state and federal assistance forthe program and is processing a non-profit charter through thesecretary of state’s office.

With the new ministry, Jones hopes to restore support tohundreds of elementary and middle school-age children who now standwithout the guidance and reinforcement once offered through thementor pairings of BBBS.

“We’re gonna be doing the same thing, and now we won’t haveanyone coming in one day and telling us we can’t have a program,”Jones said. “In Brookhaven, we need consistency, something that’sgoing to stay, something that will be our own. This is all near anddear to my heart. I love mentoring, because mentoring works.”

Mentoring was working well in Brookhaven and Lincoln Countyuntil late July. Jones said Big Brothers Big Sisters of Brookhaven(and Lincoln County) supported approximately 240 matches of “bigs”and “littles” – almost 500 children and their mentors combined – in2008, and was on course to continue succeeding in 2009, with plentyof mentees and mentors lined up for matches. She said theBrookhaven chapter of BBBS was one of the first eight operating inMississippi when the program came to the state in 2000, and hasbeen one of the flagship cities ever since.

But the current economy has taken its toll on non-profitorganizations like BBBS.

Executive Director Joel Waters said donations, the group’sprimary source of funding, have dropped significantly over the lastyear, and the organization could not sustain all its programs andemployees. Hattiesburg, Jackson, Rankin and Tupelo were the onlycities where fundraising goals were met, and are now the onlycities still operating BBBS chapters.

“We’ve been fighting and fighting and fundraising, but with theeconomy being the way it is, we didn’t reach our development plan,”Waters said. “We built our budget to a business plan, and weweren’t able to execute it. It was a dark day to do this.”

Waters said 500 matches of bigs and littles were lost statewide.Almost half of those were in Brookhaven and Lincoln County.

BBBS officials on the state and national levels are workingtoward a comeback in Mississippi, Waters said. But withoutsignificant changes and much-increased donations, it won’t happensoon.

He said the organization is hoping that those once involved withthe program will step up in their communities and create newprograms to continue mentoring young children – exactly what Jonesis trying to do. In fact, Jones’ ministry may be the first suchattempt at filling in for BBBS in the state.

“Will there be former big brothers and sisters that will stay in(children’s) lives? God, I pray so,” Waters said. “Just because wewere not able to sustain the program doesn’t mean the need is notthere.”

Jones’ journey may be a difficult one, however.

The recession has not just affected non-profit organizations, ithas affected governments as well.

There are far less state and federal grants to go around thesedays, and competition for those remaining is high. Jones said sheis paying $800 for a grant writer to submit grant applications tomore than 20 state and federal funding sources.

Running a mentoring program like BBBS is an expensiveundertaking.

Jones said around $160,000 per year was required to run thelocal chapter, most of which was supplied by the state arm. TheLincoln County Board of Supervisors chipped in $10,000, the UnitedWay of Lincoln County supplied around $4,000 and Hoops for Kids,the annual BBBS fundraiser, raised a further $2,000. She said therewere also in-kind donations from the city and county schooldistricts, the Junior Auxiliary of Brookhaven and othersources.

For the new ministry, Jones is counting on success in the grantcycle and the one tried and true source Brookhaven-basednon-profits have relied on for generations – the people.

“Anything begun in Brookhaven or Lincoln County is going tosucceed, it’s just our nature,” she said. “We take care of our own.Brookhaven is the most giving community in the State ofMississippi. It’s documented. We’re not going to be in a recessionforever. When we get our footing, we’ll be able to sustain thisprogram.”

One thing the local chapter was not short on, Jones said, wasvolunteers. She’s counting on the force of teenage and adultmentors who have worked in Lincoln County to help form the core ofher new ministry.

“We’ve had kids start out as mentees, and when they got to highschool, they turned around to become mentors,” Jones said. “Thatwas one of our goals, to create our own pool of volunteers. And itworked.”

Brookhaven High School junior Precious Patterson, 17, became amentee in the first-grade as a member of the Boys and Girls Club ofLincoln County, when members of the Braden family became hersupporters.

Patterson was looking to become a big sister this year beforethe program closed. She said she would support Jones’ ministry andvolunteer in the program if it opens.

“I was upset because I wanted to help kids the way I washelped,” Patterson said. “A lot of kids at school liked it, andthey wanted to be big sisters to help the little kids out,too.”

Brookhaven Police Department Capt. Bobby Bell knows thechallenges Jones will face in starting her ministry.

He disassociated the Boys and Girls Club from the nationalorganization and turned it into a local operation, and has enjoyedsuccess with his program. The Boys and Girls Club relies on mentorsto support its children, he said.

“We’re living in a community that believes in helping people andhelping our youth. If (Jones) really wants it, I think thecommunity will be behind her,” Bell said. “I think her only problemis going to be getting funding.

“Then, she’s gonna have to surround herself with some people whofeel like she feels about the program,” Bell continued. “If shegets it up and running, we could sure use the older kids asmentors.”