Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff

Jessica Binkley
believes her choice to become a "Big" with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff was the best decision she ever made because every moment she spends with her "Little" enriches both of their lives.

"I have learned so much from my Little," she said. "I've learned how to recognize what's important, how to forgive myself, how to get excited about puppies and ice cream, how to realize nothing's impossible and nothing's too big."

Binkley, a graduate student in psychology at Northern Arizona University, along with six other NAU students, make up half of the Bigs volunteering in the AZ STARS Mentoring Program in Flagstaff, an innovative initiative designed to team up children of incarcerated parents with positive adult role models.

"Statistics show that children of prisoners are 70 percent more likely than their peers to end up in prison," said CJ Penning, a senior, majoring in social work, who also is coordinating the program as an intern. "The AZ STARS program hopes to change these statistics; we want to keep these kids out of the criminal justice system and break the cycle."

The AZ STARS Mentoring Program, which is aided by a federal grant and overseen by the Pima Prevention Partnership, began in Tucson in 2001. Since then it has spread across Arizona, coming to the Flagstaff chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2006, Penning said.

"Bigs are good role models for these kids. They are there to model good life decisions and help them succeed," Penning said. "The more healthy adults the kids have around them, the better able they are to make wise choices for their own lives."

Binkley believes that in addition to facing the "normal" situations of childhood, many life experiences are different for children of incarcerated parents. By being a mentor, she is providing her Little with a stable adult figure while having fun in the process.

Because the NAU students who volunteer as Bigs make up 50 percent of the AZ STARS mentors, Penning said they play a vital role in the program's success.

"Working with NAU students has been a very positive experience," Penning said. "The Littles like them because they are younger and 'cooler.' Additionally, the fact that they are pursuing a college degree means they can be great role models to kids who may not know anyone who has been to college."

As a student herself, Penning believes she has learned invaluable lessons while working with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flagstaff and coordinating the AZ STARS program. She said the internship has taken all she has learned in her program and turned it into real-world knowledge.

"The most significant thing I have learned is how important prevention is because it seems to me that most of our efforts in this country deal with the problem after the fact," Penning said. "While it is very important to provide services to those who are incarcerated, it is still more important to figure out how to stop them from being incarcerated in the first place. This program is one possible solution to that problem."

Penning said she hopes the program continues to grow so it can reach out to more local children. One specific goal she has is to recruit more male Bigs because females volunteer more often than males, making it harder to place boys with male mentors.

"I think everyone who is a Big wishes there were more Bigs," Binkley said. "That's because we see our Littles' faces every time we pick them up and know how much it means to them."

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona

Jason's* mother Mandy* stated that every male her son knew, prior to his match with Brad*, were all either on drugs, abusive, or incarcerated. She now feels that Jason is starting to see the benefits of hard work, and believes that Brad has been a huge factor to this end. Jason's grades to continue to improve (he is now making the honor roll), and his relationship with teachers and classmates has become so much better.

Jason has grown up in a single parent household with a mother who is a recovering drug addict. He has never had a real relationship with his biological father who has been in and out of prison for Jason’s entire life. When his father was home, Jason witnessed several incidents of domestic violence between his parents, until his mother moved them away from his father. Jason has limited contact with his father over the phone, and was in need of a male in his life. Brad has provided Jason with a new outlook on what a positive male role model is.

Brad has made it a goal to always be a good example for Jason through speech and action. They participate in fundraising events such as Bowl For Kids Sake so Brad can show Jason how important it is to give back to the community. Some of the other activities they participate in are going to the Phoenix Zoo; attending the Match Appreciation Picnic; going to Diamond Back baseball games; fishing at Saguaro Lake; going to Jason’s soccer games; visiting the AZ Science Center; and playing basketball together.

Brad sates that he encourages the use of proper grammar to Jason so he can be ready for the workforce (even if he is only eight right now). They regularly discuss Jason’s school performance, as well as ideas for how to deal with bullies. Brad wants Jason to understand that violence is never a solution and that the negativity he has seen growing up, is not a normal way of life. Even though Jason and his mother recently moved to the other side of town, Brad still makes it a point to see Jason regularly. They show the potential to stay matched well beyond Jason’s 18th birthday.

Brad has gone above and beyond in his role as a mentor since joining the AZ STARS program in 2008. He has remained steadfast to his match with Jason for two years. In addition to mentoring in the AZ STARS program, he has displayed a desire to further BBBS mission by joining the Professional Leadership Council. He has assisted with the endorsement and expansion of program funding, initiated community partnerships to further the awareness of mentoring programs, and has shown interest to eventually transition himself into becoming a Board Member for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson

From a personal standpoint, Aaron* is everything I could expect from a Little Brother, and more. He is always excited to explore new adventures and he truly enjoys whatever activates we pursue. He is cooperative, attentive and behaves himself extremely well in public. All my friends think he is a wonderful young man. He has a great sense of humor and tells me all kinds of stories about his life.

Aaron has matured emotionally over the last two years. Reports from his teachers indicate that he is doing well in his classes and he seems to enjoy his school experience and describes his activities with a great deal of enthusiasm. Aaron has been acting as a mentor to a kindergartner at his school for much of this year. His teacher describes the relationship in glowing terms and comments on the positive impact it has had in Aaron's acceptance responsibility.

When Aaron and I met, he was describes as ADHD and was taking medication. I have seen tremendous improvement in this area and have not seen indications of hyperactivity of lack of attention for quite some time. Aaaron just received an award from his 5th grade teacher for the Most Improved Behavior in the class for the entire year. He also won first prize for best artwork for a bookmark which will be produced and distributed to every student at his elementary school.

Aaron and I have a lot in common interest such as love of the outdoors, hiking, exploring, sports, movies, we always have a great time together with virtually no hassles whatsoever, not like with my own two boys, I might add. We communicate well together and have conversations about many topics. I feel some of these discussions have had a positive effect on him.

I have not had such a wonderful experience with a child since my boys were Aarons age. They are now in their 30’s. He has reminded me of the fresh perspective boys of that age possess. Our activities are such that I feel much younger because of those experiences. He is a joy in my live and I very much look forward to being friends forever.

*names changed for privacy