Big Sister Rachael Rademacher and her 7-year-old Little Sister Abby Erickson haven’t seen each other since March 8, just a week before the Coronavirus pandemic shut down their weekly meetings as part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine mentoring program at Camden-Rockport Elementary School. But they aren’t letting social distancing keep them from staying connected, because of a pen-pal program that is allowing them, and 176 other school-based matches across eastern and central Maine, stay in touch, according to a news release from BBBS of Mid-Maine.

The Camden Hills Regional High School sophomore says being pen pals is “keeping a sense of normalcy” during a very uncertain time.

Big Sister Rachael Rademacher, a Camden Hills Regional High School sophomore, and her Little Sister Abby stay connected while they are separated during school and program closures. Big and Little matches are exchanging messages and drawings as part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine’s pen pal program to support local youth during the Covid-19 epidemic. Children from all communities are invited to share letters and drawings of hope with Littles by sending them to [email protected] Photo courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine

“It’s been great to keep our friendship going this way,” Rademacher said from her home in Rockport, after receiving a recent letter from Abby, according to the release. “I love knowing how she’s doing. That she is okay. Keeping relationships and connections during this time is really helpful for both of us.”

The mid Maine program serves more than 560 youth in Androscoggin, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot, Somerset and Waldo counties through one-to-one youth mentoring programs in schools and in the community. With CDC guidelines of social distancing and school closures, the agency proactively launched a #BiggerTogether campaign that includes Bigs and Little exchanging letters and artwork, and opportunity for children statewide to send messages of support and hope to Littles in the program.

Unlike the agency’s community-based matches between adults and children who meet independently, school and site-based Littles meet weekly with high school and college mentors at their school or a partnering youth center.

For confidentiality reasons, these matches do not exchange personal information, and only interact at programs under the guidance program staff and volunteer coordinators. Bridging the gap during the pandemic is critical to the long-term well-being of Littles, according to Gwendolyn Hudson, executive director of the organization.

“Many of our Littles are feeling isolated. Some are living in poverty, have families who struggle with substance abuse, live in unsettled households and are experiencing tremendous loss and loneliness. We know the difference a Big Brother or Big Sister makes in their lives. They are a caring friend to talk with. A guiding force. Someone to turn to when life becomes harsh,” Hudson said, according to the release. “The families of the children we serve will be some of the hardest hit during this time of isolation and economic downturn that may last much longer.”

In the first days of the campaign, the agency received more than 30 mailed exchanges between school and site-based Bigs and Littles. Some email messages, others draw pictures and hand-written letters. BBBS program managers review all postal and electronic mail before sending to the respective Big or Little. The agency is also providing matches with needed supplies in the mail, such as paper and self-addressed, stamped envelopes.

“We want to remove any barriers for matches to stay connected during this time of uncertainty and angst for our Littles and their families,” Hudson said. “So far, the campaign is being very well-received, and we expect it will just keep getting bigger.”

Recognizing that many children across the state are feeling isolated and would benefit by participating in the pen pal program, the agency started a #BiggerTogether campaign, inviting all children to share letters of hope with Little Brothers and Little Sisters. BBBS staff will mail them to Littles across their seven-county service area. Messages and drawings can be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to #BiggerTogether, BBBS of Mid-Maine, 66 Elm St., Suite 100, Camden, ME 04843.

The organization is supporting its community-based matches through frequent match support and encouraging the use of “virtual meetings” during this time of social distancing. Matches are finding creative ways to stay connected. Big Sister Beth Enman, of Skowhegan, and her Little Sister Abby Washburn usually enjoy going to community events and games or doing projects together. Since they can’t see each other for now, they are reading poems and books to each other over the phone and finding other ways to be together.

“This week we plan to paint two pictures, giving each other instruction by phone, and will send pictures of the finished paintings to each other,” said Enman. “Should be fun!” The friends hope to share their creations in person, but for now, they are finding new, creative ways to stay connected.

Big Brothers Big Sisters one-to-one youth mentoring programs are offered free to Bigs and Littles. More than half of the funding for programs comes from the agency’s largest fundraising event “Bowl for Kids’ Sake” slated for this spring and summer in Midcoast, Kennebec, Somerset, Androscoggin and Penobscot counties. The four regional events raise $300,000 for agency programs, which Hudson said are at risk because of postponements and rescheduling. BBBSMM has already rescheduled its April bowling events in Belfast, Waldoboro and Rockport, to dates in May and June, and will continue to monitor the recommendations by the CDC.

“We are committed to continuing Bowl for Kids’ Sake events to celebrate our community’s support of the 560 youth we serve,” Hudson said. “Funding for our matches is critical, as we know our Littles need their mentors now more than ever.”

For current information about Bowl for Kids’ Sake dates, the #BiggerTogether campaign, Big Pen Pal Program, volunteering or donating to support Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Maine, visit bbbsmidmaine.org or call 236-BBBS (2227).

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