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Big Brothers Big Sisters Shows Us the Power of Mentorship


Did you have a mentor growing up? Was it a family member, a coach, a teacher, or maybe an older friend? How did they encourage you, and influence the path you have taken to get to where you are today? Those of us who had a person like this in our lives are truly fortunate, as not all children grow up with a positive and caring adult in their life. We are beginning to realize the vital importance of positive mentorship versus the detrimental effect that being swept up by the wrong type of mentor can have on a child’s life. Many of us don’t realize it, but gang leaders, drug dealers, and human traffickers can also fulfill mentorship roles for a young person. 

There are many potential factors that can spark a child into going down the “wrong path” in life. Researchers at Harvard University have characterized these factors into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which can include things such as physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, and household violence. Astonishingly, 1 out of 5 youths between the ages of 7-15 in Toronto have experienced at least three ACEs. These ACEs physically manifest into something known as toxic stress, which happens because of the over-activation of the stress-response system in our bodies. This toxic stress can lead to physical health problems like heart disease and diabetes, socioeconomic problems like poor academic performance and unstable careers, as well as psychological problems including mental illness and substance abuse. These ACEs are compounded with the fact that some children also face systemic racism and poverty, creating more barriers that limit and often hinder their opportunities to succeed.   

Fortunately, there is a bright side to these bleak statistics. Nobody experiencing ACEs is irreparably damaged, and these children can go on to adapt, thrive, and achieve great success in their futures. There are many emerging resources that can help these individuals process their trauma and encourage lifestyle changes that can lead to great improvements. Most importantly, scientific prevention-based guidelines have emerged that highlight strategies to help children and their families achieve improved outcomes. The most critical element of prevention that was identified is fostering strong, caring, and responsive relationships between children and adults in their lives. This mentorship has been proven to reduce the effects of toxic stress and allows children to develop the core life skills and resilience needed to succeed in life. 

We recently Zoomed with Leanne Nicolle, President and CEO of #BigBrothersBigSistersofToronto (#BBBST), to learn more about the non-profit organization that has been providing one-to-one mentorship programs to youth since 1913. We learned that as of 2018, in Toronto alone, BBBST has enrolled a total of 2,072 youth into the 3-year mentorship program, resulting in approximately 70,000 hours of communication between Bigs and Littles. Almost two thirds of these littles live in neighbourhood improvement areas and 4 out of 5 of the littles come from a home with either a single parent or no biological parent. The average age of BBBST’s youth is 11 years old and their participants self-identify as representing 79 different cultures including many newcomer participants and indigenous youth. Currently, over 390 children and youth are on the waitlist across all programs, with boys representing 67% of this demographic. Having seen first-hand the critical role mentorship plays in young people’s lives, the BBBST’s vision for the future is to 1:1 match 4,000 youth who have had adverse childhood experiences with a mentor by 2022.  We were eager to learn more about how Leanne and her team will double their reach and impact over the next two years.

“In a nutshell BBBST puts positive caring adults in the lives of kids so they can either walk in front of them when they need, walk beside them, and walk behind them, depending on what's going on in the child's life. Sometimes they need a little push. Sometimes they need defence and protection, and sometimes they just need someone to walk alongside them in their journey.”


Leanne herself acknowledged that the power of mentorship empowered her to get to where she is today in her own life, and she is determined to pay it forwards. Her passion for the impact that Big Brothers Big Sisters has is clear when she tells the story of how she has been able to modernize the century-old organization by being the first Canadian arm of Big Brothers Big Sisters to adopt a theory of change. Her focus has been on highlighting the scientific value of their mentorship programming and the quantifiable positive impacts it has on children with ACEs. A recent research paper published on the impact of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Canada demonstrated significantly fewer behavioural and psychological problems in mentored youth compared to non-mentored youth (Dewit et al paper, 2016). By incorporating initial measurements of adversities and “thriving indicators” of positive life outcomes have repositioned the organization’s work in a new light, the scope of their impact now scientifically quantified.  The goal here is to start educating the Canadian public that hands-on positive mentorship interventions are an essential service to society. 

The term “essential service” has been thrown around a lot these days.   Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the fight for racial equity have forced us to consider our priorities and personal values.  Our views have been challenged and often shifted as we determine what resources and services we truly need in our society to thrive, and which organizations are leaders in those essential domains. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto has served our communities for the last hundred years and has provided indisputable proof of the breadth and depth of their impact on individuals and the community at large. To act proactively in child’s life and prevent or counteract lasting harm from trauma ensures we are helping to raise a new generation of Canadians who are socially engaged, productive and want to give back by serving their communities and helping others in need. 

If you are as inspired by the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto as we are, we encourage you to support their cause in any way you can. 


Here are three simple ways you can help advance their cause: 

  1. Volunteer to be a BIG –  in particular men and BIPOC men are needed

  2. Follow Big Brothers Big Sisters on social media to learn more about their important work: Instagram: @bbbsc  Facebook: @BigBrothersBigSistersToronto Twitter: @BBBSToronto

  3. Donate to support a match or consider being a monthly donor. The life of a match is $7,534

  4. Share this article with your network

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