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Big Brothers Big Sisters Matches Adjust To Mentorship Online Amid Pandemic

Big Katie Hermsen, Little Angelina Say Their Friendship Has Helped Them Navigate This Uncertain Time

Katie Hermsen and her Little Angelina pose for a photo in front of sail boats
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Big Katie Hermsen, left, and Little Angelina, 12, right, tried lots of activities like sailing on Green Bay and baking homemade pretzels. For now, they’re staying connecting online but looking forward to when they can see each other again, they said. Photo courtesy of Katie Hermsen

Katie Hermsen and 12-year-old Angelina have been spending time together for just more than two years. The pair enjoy gardening, baking and walking Hermsen’s dog, Wrigley, at Baird Creek in Green Bay.

Hermsen said Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Wisconsin (BBBSNEW) did a great job when they matched her with Angelina. The two have a lot in common.

“I remember the first day we met, we were talking about the types of things that we were interested in, and it was like, everything that I said, she was like, ‘Wait, I love doing that too,’” said Hermsen, a public affairs coordinator for the Green Bay Packers.

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Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has been connecting adult mentors, which the nonprofit calls “Bigs,” with kids, called “Littles,” in their communities for more than 100 years. But the coronavirus pandemic has created a unique challenge. Matches have moved the time they spend together online.

Connecting over Zoom or FaceTime isn’t quite the same as getting together in person, but she feels lucky the technology is available, so their friendship isn’t interrupted, said Hermsen.

Recently, Hermsen and Angelina have connected over video to play trivia, make crafts and even do a Zumba class.

Before the pandemic, they got together once a week. They’ve tried to maintain that consistency in their online meetings, Hermsen said.

Of course, the last few months have brought with them lots of changes. Angelina said finishing 7th grade online was stressful.

But her friendship with Hermsen has helped keep her from feeling alone during this time of physical separation, she said. And Hermsen agrees.

“Especially through everything with the coronavirus, having Angelina there to talk to, even as a Big, it’s been such a great thing for me,” she said.

Vic Valdez, marketing and communications director for BBBSNEW, said the organization’s program specialists have been focused on making sure Bigs and Littles can stay connected despite social distancing.

Big Katie Hermsen and her Little Angelina pose with dough while baking
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Wisconsin matched Katie Hermsen, right, and Angelina, 12, left, more than two years ago. They did a great job because the pair have a lot in common, Hermsen said. They like baking, gardening and walking Hermsen’s dog. Photo courtesy of Katie Hermsen

In some cases, technology access has been an issue. Some Bigs have written letters and dropped them off with BBBSNEW staff to be delivered to their Littles. A few had to be returned and rewritten after they were initially composed in cursive which not all children can read, Valdez said.

But they’ve found ways to make it work.

BBBSNEW has organized online activities, like a class where kids could learn how to draw different animals, for Bigs and Littles to do together. As an added benefit, Littles can socialize with each other, something that might be missing from their lives with schools closed and summer camps in limbo.

Staff have also been working to recruit new Bigs, which hasn’t been easy amid the pandemic.

Currently, BBBSNEW has about 60 boys and 25 girls waiting for mentors, Valdez said. It’s a volunteer opportunity Hermsen recommends.

“It’s been such a great experience in my life having (Angelina) as my friend, so I would really highly encourage if someone’s looking for an opportunity to volunteer, there are so many kids out there that are just waiting to be matched up,” Hermsen said.

Hermsen and Angelina are looking forward to when they can return to their favorite spots, like Culver’s and Barnes & Noble. Angelina got a dog named Willow just before the coronavirus pandemic came to Wisconsin. She and Hermsen are excited to introduce their four-legged friends as soon as it’s safe for them to get together, they said.