The idea of mentorship is said to be rooted in the Greek myth of Odysseus who entrusted his son’s education to his friend, Mentor. Today, mentorship comes not only in the form of educators, but rather informal and formal relationships we have with people who help to shape our perspectives on the world around us, build our confidence in ourselves, show care for us in difficult times and celebrate our successes.
Although mentorship in principle is incredibly important for both children and adults, the presence of a mentor in the life of a child has even more of an impact. This is supported by a five year study by Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada that found that children with a mentor were not only more confident, but also had fewer behavioural problems. Both boys and girls showed an increased belief in their abilities to succeed in school and felt less anxiety due to peer pressure.
Despite this, on average, one in three children grow up without any mentor-like figures in their lives. To help bridge this gap Cayman has a number of opportunities and programmes in place for young people aged seven to 18.
One active programme that has grown rapidly under the leadership of current Programme Director, Angela Sealey, is the Big Brothers Big Sisters Cayman Islands (BBBS KY) mentorship programme. BBBS KY aims to provide children, who are facing adversity, with a strong and enduring one-on-one relationship with a mentor who will help change their lives for the better.
The current programme is deeply rooted in an informal programme that was started back in the early 1990s under the leadership of Pastor Stanwyck Myles. Organising a group of island residents, he worked to provide mentoring to various children and teenagers. With the help of the Lions Club of Grand Cayman, the formal BBBS KY Programme was incorporated in 1995.
The current programme works to ensure that heavily vetted mentors are matched appropriately with mentees – even if it means that both Bigs (mentors) and Littles (mentees) have to wait a long time to be matched. Just as a match can be incredibly powerful, a failed match can be detrimental for both the Big and the Little. Therefore, a thoughtful approach is taken with consideration given to personal likes and dislikes, life experiences and personality traits.
Current mentor Gerardo Ochoa-Vargas knows the waiting game all to well. One full year after he was successfully approved as a Big, he was finally matched with his Little, Alex. eight years later, they’ve agreed to share their story with us.
Gerardo describes himself as a self-proclaimed science nerd who had few friends growing up and always preferred to play with a microscope than a soccer ball. A physician (M.D.) by trade, he worked his way up to the role of Senior Advisor in the Health Secretariat for the Mexican Government, and then ultimately landed in Grand Cayman on a professorship with St. Matthew’s University. After arriving in Cayman he tried volunteering with various groups around the Island: helping the Blue Iguanas at the Sanctuary and walking the dogs at the Humane Society – but for him, volunteering with these organisations didn’t feel like the right fit. Hearing about the profound impact the BBBS KY programme had had on one of his friends, he decided to apply to be a Mentor.
Alex spent his childhood growing up in a loving and middle-class two-parent household but notes that he faced two key challenges. First, his time at home was filled with women: living with his mother, sister, aunt and a female family friend left him longing for a brother. Secondly, while his father did everything he could to be present, his job as a chef often kept him out of the house for up to 18 hours per day. At the age of 8, Alex’s mum recognised his need for a male role model that could provide committed time to him regularly and then decided to introduce him to the programme.
Over the next few months, Alex and Gerardo found out that there were as many similar things between them as there were different things. They both considered themselves non-religious, loved swimming, and had an infinite sense of adventure. This sense of adventure was key to how Gerardo was able to create real and meaningful moments with his Little, Alex. These adventures not only bonded them, but helped them grow as people. He recounts “I took a step back and realised that collaborating with Alex on planning our next adventure or activity really got him excited. So every Friday Alex would call me to plan what we would do when we met on Saturday. I could hear the excitement in his voice build, as the list he compiled grew. We hardly ever followed the plan we made, but it gave him a sense of responsibility, helped him build his independence and provided him with an opportunity to work on a team to plan for and execute an adventure”.
When asked to pick their top three adventures together, Alex and Gerardo both agree on the following:
Swimming out to and snorkelling the Kittiwake. One of the adventures Alex is most proud of is successfully swimming out to and back from the Kittiwake. He and his Big Brother researched currents, studied the location and features of the sunken ship, and worked as a team to successfully complete this adventure. [Editor’s Note: Swimming out to the Kittawake can be an incredibly dangerous activity due to constant boat traffic.]
The Flamingo boating adventures. After spending hours paddling, crawling in the mud and exploring Malportas Pond, Gerardo and Alex were able to get some stunning pictures of the visiting Flamingos.
Exploring the post-Ivan grounds of the old Hyatt. Alex describes this exploration as one of his most thrilling adventures. Crawling through what remained of the Hyatt Regency Britannia brought on thoughts of scary movies, and they both had to push past their comfort zones.
Although adventure, positivity and excitement have all been a large part of the eight years Gerardo and Alex have spent together, so have times of challenge and sadness. Alex’s mother was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2014 and sadly passed away nine months later. During the same period, Gerardo’s mother fought against a less aggressive form of cancer. Although they aimed to support each other during this time, at only 14 years old, a few months after his mother’s untimely passing, Alex told the programme director that he no longer wanted to be a part of the programme. However, as they had a true friendship, Gerardo and Alex were reunited nine months later at Alex’s request. When asked about what happened during that period, Alex says that it was a time of “anger, binge moods and hot-headed moments and I realised that I missed my sanctuary at Gerardo’s office…the reliability of Gerardo being there when I needed him…and of course the good days when we had fun”. Although initially hurt, Gerardo understood that sometimes people, whether young or old, need a little bit of space to work through grief and their feelings.
As the years have passed Gerardo feels that his role as a mentor has become ever more important. Alex agrees, noting that his Big has “helped me through tough situations at school…took the time to consider other options when they diagnosed me with dyslexia…taught me to use public buses to get around by myself on the Island…even helped me start my own business (mrboxboy.com)”.
Gerardo and Alex are a great example of a BBBS KY mentorships that has worked really well! Their story shows that by offering a consistent adult presence in a young person’s life, while providing emotional support, encouraging personal growth, and delivering timely invaluable advice, a mentor has the potential to change the life of their mentee. Gerardo wanted us to mention that mentoring has also transformed him immensely. “Since Alex has come into my life, I have felt a different fulfilment; it has been a great adventure and an experience I would never trade! I encourage everyone to take on a mentorship role – the only requirement is that you care.”
Check out more at www.bbbs.ky
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