How Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters adapted to COVID-19, from letter-writing to Zoom

How Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters adapted to COVID-19, from letter-writing to Zoom

Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters

Little Brother Gabriel and his Big Brother Ken stayed in touch through old-fashioned pen pal letter-writing during the worst of COVID-19 quarantine in 2020. Some matches were unable to meet in person and continued connecting remotely via Zoom, through phone calls or by writing letters.

by Alexandra Conforti, ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation

February 9, 2021

Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters bears an important mission: Create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth. However, when COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, donor- and volunteer-supported organizations were not immune and faced alarming challenges on how to adapt and add remote options. Although faced with their own set of obstacles, which they and many other nonprofits shared last year in the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation's report on COVID-19 impacts, Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters found a way to turn the uncertainty of the pandemic into a step towards innovation within their operations.

Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters (YBBBS) serves hundreds of youth throughout Yavapai County and Sedona. This volunteer-supported mentoring network creates meaningful and monitored matches between adult volunteers, known as “Bigs,” and at-risk children, or “Littles,” with the goal of developing relationships that have a direct, lasting effect on the future of young people.

“Putting our staff at home and getting them prepared to work virtually was a huge challenge,” said Erin Mabery, the executive director and CEO of Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters. “We were not prepared mentally and of course we really scrambled trying to accomodate.” Mabery said that the organization relies heavily on communication and in-person relationships, but the pandemic left little room for that. Their policies had to change “overnight” to adapt to an online environment and to keep their matches engaged.

“There was a lot of fear. A lot of fear from the staff and questions of, ‘Is this what we’re going to have to do forever?’ Changing the model of what we were doing was strenuous and stressful,” Mabery said. “We had some great accomplishments that we celebrated, however, and it also brought us a little bit closer in a different way because we were much more mindful of the outreach and keeping in contact with each other constantly.”

Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters

A Big and Little wear their face masks during an introductory day at the park after completing the matching process. Most of the program's activities, including matching, moved to a virtual format.

The YBBBS mentor-matching process begins by enrolling and interviewing the children to learn more about their family, current circumstances, personality and interests. The organization's specialists then figure out the needs and challenges of the children, and matches them with a Big who has been interviewed and background-checked. A “successful match” stays together for roughly a year, but many of the matches stay together for several.

Bigs and Littles normally meet in person on a regular basis, but due to COVID, meetings between matches moved online, resulting in some mentors and children leaving the program, known as “match closures.” YBBBS was still successful in connecting 34 virtual matches last year, bringing their current total to 240.

Virtual field trips, resource and activity packages for families, and a board game drive were only a few of the ways that the organization was able to bring their new virtual reality to life. Upgrades and funding for new computers was also a huge step in integrating virtual meetings for staff, volunteers and the program’s youth.

“In order to keep the matches alive, we had to figure out how to do things virtually,” said Cheryl Main, administrative director at YBBBS. Although their annual programs and in-person events have mostly been cancelled, Main said that real connections are continuing to grow this year.

“We still believe in our mission and we still believe how important it is for the Littles to have a mentor in their life, and if that still requires them to only be able to do that from a distance, then that's still certainly beneficial to the child,” Main said. “We hear from the Bigs all the time that they start out thinking that they're providing support for a child, and they find out what an impact it makes on their lives. So that is something we will continue to push for.”

Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters

Members of Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters gather on a Zoom call to say thanks to the program's ‘Bigs’ during National Volunteer Month last April.

The members, leaders and mentors of YBBBS held their organization to high standards last year to provide a safe and comfortable atmosphere for the Littles of the program. The organization’s mission remains the same, and the dedication to its youth stands shining despite their hardships.

“I think we had an eye-opener when we realized that we didn’t need to be in the same physical space to do good work and to connect our matches. Despite COVID and the restrictions, we still had people who wanted to be with their Littles and were comfortable to do it remotely,” Robin Layton, development director of YBBBS, said. “The big takeaway was that something as big as a pandemic didn’t interrupt our mission.”

Layton said that, with precautions, the matches might be able to meet in-person again soon, but with the COVID numbers continuing to fluctuate, YBBBS is unsure. And this year, Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters is celebrating their 50th year.

“We are part of a nationwide federation and we are not alone in the challenges. … Stay connected with other similar organizations and very different organizations,” Mabery advises other nonprofits. She said that keeping in contact with other organizations has helped Yavapai Big Brothers Big Sisters with innovation and can offer opportunities for collaboration in the future.

Innovation hub

Nonprofit Innovation Hub

We want to hear your success stories. Organizations are invited to contribute to the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Innovation Hub and share how they are adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Submissions will contribute to an indispensable resource and help lift up the nonprofit community during this time of need.