Special to the Sun
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Massachusetts (BBBSEM) has named Brad Roberts, 55, of the South End, as the agency’s 2023 Big Brother of the Year. He is one of nearly 4,000 volunteers, referred to as Bigs, for the nonprofit who are committed to developing caring and life-altering one-to-one mentoring relationships with children.
Roberts started mentoring in 1985 when he was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire through the school’s campus-based program, following in his older sister’s footsteps who was matched with her own mentee, or Little, two years prior. Over the last 38 years, he watched his first Little, Chris, graduate from college, get married, have two sons whom he proudly refers to as his nephews, suffer loss and find love again. Roberts’ mentoring experience was so rewarding that the father of two daughters re-engaged with the organization in 2014 after becoming an empty nester.
“Being matched with my second mentee, Xzavier Jones, was humbling, says Roberts, who ran the Boston Marathon in 2015 to raise more than $14,000 for BBBSEM. “When we first met it was a bit awkward as the nine-year-old was timid and our conversations were often one-way. But, after settling into our routine we learned to connect with an activity, whether it be playing basketball, going to the trampoline park, or really anything outside with the promise of food and more open dialogue at the end. This launched our never-ending search for Boston’s best burger! It grew into Xzavier’s appreciation for sushi – which made me, a huge sushi fan, very pleased.”
Although the duo resided in the same city, they lived in what felt like worlds apart. Not only did Roberts expand his Little’s pallet, but he was also there when he summited his first mountain and took his first flight – to Florida to meet Robert’s original Little, Chris. Over the last nine years, Xzavier has struggled with family dynamics, grief, social pressures, exposure to inner-city violence, and the academic and socioeconomic impact of the pandemic. They now talk openly about overcoming these challenges as the recent high school graduate plans to pursue local job opportunities and his ambition to be an influencer.
“I never faced many of these obstacles, but I listened, encouraged and empathized,” says Roberts, an engineer. “Often, I can sense the weight coming off his shoulders as he lets it all out. I know I can’t solve all the problems of the world, but it gives me joy to know our relationship allows him to have someone to confide in, help carry the burden and walk alongside as he goes through challenges in his life. I became a Big to “give” and unknowingly ended up “receiving” so much. There is no doubt that my relationship with Xzavier has also made me a better person as he has challenged me to be patient and to open my eyes to living in someone else’s shoes.”
Xzavier’s mother, Sharina, registered her son to participate in the program after her eldest son had such a positive mentoring experience through the same organization. As a single mother, having additional caring adults in her children’s corner gave her the time and headspace to focus on work and everything else.
“It’s good for them to have another outlet that they can look up too, especially a positive male role model; something they don’t otherwise have,” says Sharina. “Through his time with Brad, I have seen Xzavier take on more responsibility and assume more ownership when he has made a mistake. I always hoped for my children to do whatever their hearts desire, and this program is a great way for him to figure out whatever that may be for him. My heart is filled with overwhelming gratitude as the organization.”
With research and proven outcomes at its core, BBBSEM creates matches based on shared interests, geography and personality and serves as a consistent resource for Bigs, Littles and their families. The organization serves as a bridge between communities and community partners, helping to address larger social issues, such as race and education gaps.
“Brad has always inspired me to do better, and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have improved on things like my public speaking and better managing my emotions,” says Jones. “Brad has shown me there is more to the world than I expected. For that I am grateful and whole heartedly would recommend this program to my peers.”
Mentoring is one protective measure that adults can take to minimize risk factors, such as lack of motivation, anxiety, stress, and isolation, that are threatening children’s mental health and academic success. A national study of 950 youth from eight Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies showed that positive relationships between Littles and their Bigs have a direct and measurable impact on children’s lives. Big Brothers Big Sisters’ matches consistently spend more time together, and continue as a match for longer periods, than those in other mentoring programs. Results also showed Bigs help Littles learn right from wrong, make better life choices, do better in school and advance to the next grade level.
“Brad and Xzavier’s almost nine-year friendship is a testament to the incredible work of our volunteers and staff members who keep kids learning, engaged and having fun,” says Mark O’Donnell, President & CEO of BBBSEM. “Now, more than ever, youth and families need additional support. We need more caring adults, like Brad, to step up for our children to become mentors to ensure they reach their fullest potential.”
Anyone can become a Big as the agency welcomes youth and adults of all races, ethnicities, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, and physical abilities. Volunteers must be 18 years old or older and be able to commit a few hours a few times a month for at least a year and have a passion for positively impacting a young person’s life.
In its 74th year, BBBSEM has created and served more than 20,000 matches. The nonprofit is now enrolling and matching Littles and Bigs. For more information, to register your children or to become a volunteer, visit: www.emassbigs.org.