November is Native American Heritage Month and is a welcomed opportunity for me to share about a program I believe is strengthening our Native American communities one youth at a time. Mentoring has been a long tradition in Native American cultures where the importance of family, storytelling and traditions are viewed as core values. Big Brothers Big Sisters is an extension of these core values as a formal mentoring opportunity providing children in the community with a role model.
I began volunteering 13 years ago with Big Brothers Big Sisters, a non-profit organization that promotes positive mentoring relationships for adults and children ages 6 to 18. The young people, who are referred to as Littles, and their mentors, who are referred to as Bigs, are paired based on a variety of factors including similar interests, proximity and any preferences a Big or Little may have. For example, a Big or a Little and their family may have a preference to match to an individual who has a similar background because it may solidify a deeper bond between the two, a truth I have personally experienced.
Born and raised on the Navajo Nation it has always been important for me to be able to give back to the Native American community so I had a preference to match to a Native Little. I’ve been matched with my current ‘little’ for the past seven years and she is of Navajo and Cheyenne descent and is a registered member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT). Based on our Navajo clan system, we’re cousins and as such, we’re able to connect more easily, discuss our families, cultural practices and desires to give back to our Native communities.
Arizona is home to 22 tribes and four of the Native American communities are located in the Valley. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona (BBBSAZ) is an advocate for acknowledging the rich culture and contributions of the organization’s Native neighbors and has created a Native American Mentoring Initiative that serves our Native American youth and provides a formal mentoring opportunity for Native American high school students and adults.
BBBSAZ currently has three site-based programs specifically serving our Native American communities in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community, and urban Natives in Mesa.
Our proven effective mentoring practices are combined with a tribal community focus. The program runs under the guidance of Big Brothers Big Sisters staff, community organizations, and community members to best serve a tribe’s existing needs, structure, and cultural values.
In addition to providing a much-needed mentor to a young person, the program also benefits the Big. As a Big, I’m able to introduce my Little to fun activities and lend support during her challenging times. In return, I’m given a firsthand look at the activities from her perspective and the chance to watch her grow into a happy and productive young woman.
The latter has proven to be one of my favorite rewards of the volunteer process as I’ve witnessed my current ‘little’ transition from a shy 9-year old to a confident teenager in leadership roles and even participating in the first-ever Tribal Youth Summit hosted by the White House. In fact, one of my favorite memories with my Little was when we were able to travel to Fairbanks, Ala. in 2013 for a conference and learn about the Alaskan Native culture.
Currently, BBBSAZ is serving 78 Native American children and has 45 Native American mentors volunteering in our program but I believe we can do more!
I encourage all adults, particularly males, in the Native American community to rise to the challenge and volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona or a BBBS organization near you. We need you to lend your time and share your life lessons with our young people. Doing so will assure them that there is someone nearby that cares about their future and the future of their communities.
Learn more about the organization and its Native American mentoring programs here.
Bobbi Rose Nez is a 'Big Sister' volunteer and a Tribal Partnership Coordinator at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona. She has worked with youth, as well as the non-profit sector, for more than 10 years. Nez currently resides in Tempe, Ariz.