Mentoring program to close in Haines, Homer, Hoonah, Sitka

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska will no longer make new matches between youths and volunteers in four Alaska communities: Haines, Homer, Hoonah and Sitka.

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The organization, which matches volunteers and youth for one-on-one mentoring, says it’s a matter of reduced federal and state grant funding.

Rosalie Loewen opens a filing cabinet at the Big Brothers Big Sisters office in downtown Haines, filled with file folders for hundreds of mentors and youths they’ve served.

“Well, it’s packed in there so tight that I can’t actually fit any more in there,” Loewen said.

As she’s getting ready to close the office, Loewen says she’s been reflecting on all the lives that have been touched by the program over its 15 years in Haines.

“I remember that it is not just the names that are in that filing cabinet but their siblings and their parents and all of the other kids in their classroom and just, it’s just a big piece of the way the fabric holds together for this community,” Loewen said.

Loewen is the community director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Haines, where for the past two years she has been responsible for all aspects of the program.

The non-profit specializes in helping kids connect with adult mentors.

Loewen said the program serves about 10 percent of youth in the Haines School.

The change was announced Friday and goes into effect after May 31, 2018.

Big Brothers Big Sisters will close their offices in the four communities and consolidate them to Anchorage or Juneau, where a dedicated staff specialist will focus on serving existing matches.

Loewen said the closure is unfortunate.

“It’s a little frustrating to see the program close now because research is showing us more and more that kids who experience developmental trauma, one of the most important things that you do that will create more positive outcome in their lives and help them overcome that challenge, is to match them with an adult mentor with a stable, healthy, positive relationship,” Loewen said.

Loewen said that relationship creates a buffer for the child and it can mean that a level of stress for a child is manageable rather than toxic.

That buffer is sometimes hard to find in rural communities.

Divorce, death, incarceration, addiction — those are the big four reasons that a parent is unable to be involved with their kids and which create an opportunity for mentors to fill the gap.

Even though serving rural kids through Big Brothers Big Sisters is expensive, like just about everything in rural Alaska, Loewen said it’s critical.

“It’s a mistake to close this program down because in the rural areas the kids don’t have other programs that can fill in,” Loewen said. “Sometimes it’s a geographical issue where the people who sit on the statewide board are located in Anchorage and it’s hard for them to get that perspective.”

In 2017, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska served more than 580 youths across the state.

The organization has an annual budget of $1.6 million and 20 employees.

Big Brothers Big Sisters currently serves 19 matches in Haines, 19 in Hoonah, 14 in Sitka and 26 in Homer.

The organization will continue making new matches in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Mat-Su Valley.

The organization gets about half of its funding from federal and state grant monies, which are disappearing, Heather Harris, CEO for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska, said.

“We’re in a difficult financial place and we have to make incredibly difficult decisions. And this is not a decision that was made lightly by any means,” Harris said. “These communities and the youth that are in them are incredibly important to us and to the organization as a whole and we know we’ve done life-saving work in those communities.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters has been working in Alaska since 1972.

Harris is hopeful the organization will eventually be able to reopen their offices in the communities.

Although she’s heartbroken about the Haines office closing, Loewen is also realistic, saying the days of big grants and free-flowing funds to solve the state’s social problems are over.

“Things will have to be homegrown, come up from the bottom. But I feel not entirely pessimistic about that because, in my mind, that’s what Alaskan’s are really good at, pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and being independent and making things work,” Loewen said. “We’ve gotten used to a lot of top-down economics and now it’s time for a little bit of bottom-up work.”

Staff in the four communities have been given the opportunity to continue on a part-time basis.

Loewen will not be one of them.  Loewen has one more young person on the waiting list for a mentor match and she plans on making that connection before she closes the Big Brothers Big Sisters office door in Haines one last time on April 13.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.