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Mentorship program aiming to help kids reverse pandemic negatives into positives

With the spikes in violence and teen suicide, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Ohio is working to reverse the trends.

TOLEDO, Ohio — The pandemic has been difficult on us all. Now, two years later, we're starting to see the impact isolation has had on kids.

"With the gangs that's out here, just the shootings of young people, I don't want them caught up in that. At all," Willie Louise Austin said.

She is referring to the two grandchildren she and her husband have custody of. 

She was happy to enroll them in Big Brothers Big Sisters, a mentoring program.

In less than a year, she's already seeing the impact it's had. Particularly on her 13-year-old grandson, Armani. 

"For a while I had trouble with him in school and his behavior, but since he's been in the program, that's turned around," Willie said.

Willie says she has Armani's "Big," Dan Iova, to thank for that. 

The program requires committing to at least an hour of interaction a week, but Iova says it's easy to invest much more.

"It doesn't take much to make an impact on people. Just being there, giving them a little bit of your time," Iova said.

Iova and Armani are one of about a hundred ongoing matches for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Ohio.

RELATED: BGSU police, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Ohio team up for new mentorship program

President and CEO Dr. Marvin Whitfield says since the pandemic began, requests for matches have grown. 

"We've seen a significant spike, within the first six months of the pandemic, due to isolation, of violence within our school system and within the inner city areas where a lot of our youth that we serve, reside," Whitfield said.

Shortly after that, Whitfield says he started tracking more data, showing a spike in suicides in ages 10 to 24.

RELATED: Teen suicide numbers on the rise; local professionals say mental health treatment is key

Big Brothers Big Sisters is doing something about both of these trends by offering mental health resources to students in schools and also career path and development programming. 

Whitfield says exposing "Littles" to opportunities not present in their worldview is key. 

"Without hope, you have no goal, no vision. So if we can inspire hope, we can inspire resilience," Whitfield said. 

Willie says she has hope for Armani. He's opening up and doing better in school. 

"Dan's helping me get him back on track. His grades were way up this quarter," Willie said.

"That selfishly means a lot to me," Iova said. "That makes me feel so good to see that, to see him grow."


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