Whether you’re new in your career or looking for a significant change, a great mentor can help you navigate challenges – not to mention boost your chances of success. 

For many of us, finding a mentor earlier in life helped shape our education and career trajectories for the better. Those mentors were often a teacher or an older sibling. Not everyone in our community is so lucky – but thankfully, we have Big Brothers Big Sisters Waterloo Region to help. Founded in 1964, Big Brothers Big Sisters Waterloo Region has been connecting bigs and littles to help build positive relationships critical to childhood development. 

Like it has for every charitable organization, the last year has been a little different. “We’ve never had a year like we have had this past year,” said Julie Phillips, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Waterloo Region. “However, our bigs and littles have been troopers and shifted very easily to having their connections being virtual.” 

Phillips credits the ease in switching between in-person and online to both bigs and littles being comfortable with technology. Even before the pandemic hit, the agency had made changes to the ways bigs and littles interacted. Meeting in-person for two to four hours each week was moved to in-person every other week with text, calls or even playing video games online together.

“Those are the types of things to let them know, ‘Hey, I’m still thinking about you,’” said Phillips. “It might have been something as simple as, ‘Hey Johnny, I remembered that you had a history test this coming Tuesday, just want to wish you great luck in that I know you’re gonna rock it.’ That’s a simple, easy text, but one that also lets the little know that they are a value to someone.”

Understanding that Zoom fatigue affects everyone regardless of age, Big Brothers Big Sisters Waterloo Region has worked with their volunteers to find new ways to connect virtually. These include online games and fun websites.

“Some are building a fun LEGOland together at the same time or baking virtually together at the same time,” Phillips said.

Getting bigs and littles together starts with a parent or guardian asking for help. Phillips saw this first hand when she started at the agency in 1999. “I had my first child that year and as a young mom, I really admired parents that realized, ‘You know what, I can’t be everything to my child.’ It takes a certain vulnerability to reach out to an organization to say ‘I need a little bit of help.’” 

Big Brothers Big Sisters Waterloo Region finds its bigs from across our community. “We’re blessed with our community,” Phillips said. “We have three post-secondary institutions, so for students that are coming from another city to Waterloo Region who are looking at how they can connect to this community, volunteering is a great way to connect.” 

Connecting with a new community was the motivation for Jodie Boylan, Director, Customer Engagement at Axonify. During one of her interviews with Axonify, Boylan discussed her charitable and volunteer experience with company co-founder Christine Tutssel.

“I mentioned Big Brothers Big Sisters because I was quite involved with it in my hometown,” said Boylan. “I said I wanted to get involved here, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that looks like.” 

Tutssel shared how she and her mother had volunteered with Best Friends of Big Brothers Big Sisters Waterloo Region. Best Friends is the local chapter of the volunteer group that raises funds for Big Brothers Big Sisters programming. The local chapter was founded in 1989 and has raised more than $1 million to support programming through fundraising events.

After Axonify hired Boylan, she brought a co-worker, Terry Hessey, on board to find ways for Axonify to be involved.

“We’ve been really, really fortunate with how supportive Axonify has been,” Boylan said. “They have sponsored different events throughout the years. We’ve also been lucky that we’ve been able to incorporate some of our events within Axonify.” 

Past events have included a gourmet dinner to raise funds for Big Brothers Big Sisters and a bottle drive. Axonify employees set up a campsite in their parking lot with the bottle drive where people could come by and drop off their empties. 

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, their gourmet dinner fundraiser had to be postponed. “It was our biggest event that we put on every April, where we have chefs and auctions and all kinds of fun stuff to raise money,” said Hessey. “It’s our biggest moneymaker of the year.”

The next major fundraising project for Boylan and Hessey is their Fundrive on May 15, where they’ll collect clothing, household textiles and small household goods. The Fundrive is connected with a recycling and reuse program that pays per pound for the items donated.

Boylan and Hessey credit Axonify for going above and beyond to help them with their volunteer efforts. Pre-COVID, this included use of the Axonify office space, too.

“Our venue for our general meetings and our monthly general meeting was getting a little too small for us,” said Hessey. “Axonify allowed us to use the kitchen for our general meeting space.”

Saving rental fees for space means more funds can go directly to support Big Brothers Big sisters.

“We had to pay for the space where we were meeting, we had to pay to bring in coffee, that kind of thing, but Axonify provided that space at no cost. They also provide the coffee as well, which is really nice,” added Boylan. “So little things like that really add up.”

The majority of Best Friends volunteers are seniors, and Hessey, Boylan and Axonify have been able to help them learn new technologies.

“We slowly started with the executive team, getting them on to a Google Meet,” said Hessey. “It’s interesting to see how these 70- to 80-year-old women are getting on to computers and just joining a Zoom call and talking from their living room. It’s incredible to see that.”

Phillips agreed that the support of Best Friends and Axonify provides a great deal of help. “Best Friends are such a blessing to us as an agency,” said Phillips. 

Everyone is invited to donate used items for the Best Friends of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Waterloo Region Fundrive on May 15, 2021. You can find a list of needed items on their site along with contact information to learn more about how you can help.