For Vivian Felten, the importance of volunteering all comes down to a sense of community.
For the past five years, the Collinsville resident has served as a volunteer with Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.
During that time, Felten has been a “Big Sister” to Hilary, 13, who lives in Torrington with her Ecuadorian family.
Since first being paired as a “Big” and a “Little” when Hilary was 8 years old, the two have spent time together generally once a week: sometimes going to the movies, shopping, spending an afternoon at the park or maybe just going out for bite to eat and a leisurely chat.
“And sometimes we get together, and we have no idea what we’re going to do,” she said with a laugh.
Felten added that the friendship has developed and blossomed into one of the most important relationships in her life.
“I’m really grateful,” she said.
Felten was recently honored by the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters for her commitment to the program, receiving the local chapter’s “Exceptional Mentor Award.”
Although honored by the award, Felten said she felt it was recognition that both she and Hilary should share together.
“It feels funny to be recognized about what’s become a friendship,” she explained.
“Hilary puts in just as much time as I do,” Felten said of their commitment.
At the time she first become involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters, Felten did not have any children. A busy professional with the United States Department of Agriculture, she was looking for a way to not just give back to her community, but also connect.
“I just thought that I could help contribute,” Felten said, adding that she was motivated, in part, by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s idea that “it takes a village” to help raise a healthy and happy child.
“I wanted that kind of connection," she said. "I wanted to be part of the village that way."
Although uncertain at first whether BBBS was the right organization for her, a co-worker who had been serving as a “Big” with the group was able to give her valuable first-hand information about the mentoring program and encouraged her to explore it further.
“Talking to someone in the program was really helpful,” Felten said.
After deciding to move forward as a Big Sister volunteer, she said the organization did an outstanding job in matching her and Hilary together as a mentoring pair.
“They really took their time to do a thorough evaluation, to make sure it was a right for the both of us,” Felten said.
Once an adult volunteer is matched with a child, the two enter into a mutual contract between themselves.
Felten explained that both mentor and mentee have to commit to spending at least six to eight hours a month together for at least one year. That time could be a couple of hours a week or an entire day once a month.
The important part, Felten said, is the recognition and understanding that the commitment between a “Big” and “Little” is a two-way street.
“Basically, it’s saying: ‘Here’s a contract and you’re both going to make an effort for one year,’” she said.
Now that Hilary is entering her teenage years, Felten said in addition to their once-a-week get togethers, they also frequently talk on the phone and even text message each other during the day.
Felten said as a “Big,” she provides Hilary with an adult sounding board and support system that is outside of the family structure.
“It’s different enough, but I’m still an adult,” she said.
And while the program might not be for everyone, Felten encourages those who might be interested to reach out and contact their local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter to find out more.
Participating in the program, she said, could make a difference not just in the life of a child, but also your own.
“They’ve matched me with a good, life-long friend,” Felten said. “I’ve gotten a lot more than I’ve offered."
For more information about Big Brothers Big Sisters, visit www.nutmegbigbrothersbigsisters.com.
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