x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Big Brother to watch over disadvantaged children

Big Brothers Big Sisters, founded in New York in 1904, pairs adult volunteers with children who need role models. Men are matched with boys and women with girls.

DUBAI // Disadvantaged children and orphans may soon have their own special someone to look up to and seek out for advice.

Executives from the US organisation Big Brothers Big Sisters International are meeting with government representatives this week to discuss bringing the Middle East's first branch the emirate.

"It's never been done in Arabic before," said Shane Phillips, a headhunter who has been managing the branch's start-up. "It's never been done in an Islamic context before."

Local authorities have shown interest. "The concept of a big brother as a mentor, as someone a child or person can rely on, I think it's a wonderful idea," said Khaled Al Kamda, director general of the Community Development Authority (CDA).

Big Brothers Big Sisters, founded in New York in 1904, pairs adult volunteers with children who need role models. Men are matched with boys and women with girls.

The siblings are expected to meet for at least four hours every second week, with a minimum commitment of a year. The volunteers can help the children with homework, take them out or provide advice.

"It's an amazing programme that helps children from a variety of walks of life," said Big Brothers Big Sisters International chief executive T Charles Pierson, who has volunteered as a "big brother" for years.

"My first 'little brother' lost his father to a heart attack when he was five years old." The boy grew up to volunteer as a big brother himself.

Mr Pierson and Katherine Balsley, the president of Big Brothers Big Sisters, yesterday met representatives of the CDA and Emirates Foundation for Youth Development.

Today they have a meeting at the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Big Brothers Big Sisters operates in 12 countries outside the US, including Australia and Bermuda.

"We train the volunteers," Mr Pierson said. "We screen the volunteers to make sure everyone is safe. And we assign a social worker case manager … not only to help them but also to measure the outcomes."

Mr Pierson and Ms Balsley decided to focus on the UAE after being approached by Mr Phillips, who works for the executive search firm Stanton Chase and was drawn to the scheme after seeing the importance of mentors in the business world.

"If this is having such a huge impact for top performers, what impact it might have for an eight-year-old who's not sure where to go in life?" Mr Phillips asked.

One of the most important things mentors can do is provide direction to children, Ms Balsley said.

"The biggest defining characteristic of our kids is they live so much in the present," she said. "There's not much hopefulness for them."

The local branch's first target would be the estimated 4,000 "orphans", which in the UAE includes children in single-parent households. The second would be other disadvantaged children, such as youths performing poorly in school or facing criminal charges.

The group would start its first year serving about 40 youngsters, then grow each year until it served more than 1,000, Mr Phillips said.

The scheme would be funded by a mix of donations and government and foundation support.

Big Brothers Big Sisters wants to make the programme locally relevant, Mr Pierson said.

The next step is to register for a government licence. Mr Phillips is also searching for an Emirati general manager.