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Where are all the men? Few on Cape Cod are volunteering

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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod & the Islands
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emassbigs.org
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod & the Islands has its fewest volunteers in almost 50 years.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod and the Islands provides support and mentorship to children. But the pandemic has created a shortage for the nonprofit: men volunteers aren’t showing up like they used to.

Boys on Martha’s Vineyard are now waiting up to 500 days to be matched with adult mentors as the nonprofit scrambles to find men willing to volunteer a few hours a month.

Morning Edition's Patrick Flanary spoke with regional director JR Mell about the need that his organization scrambling to confront in the new year.

Patrick Flanary: How are Bigs and Littles getting creative during a pandemic? I would think the options are limited when it comes to getting together for activities.

JR Mell: Our agency definitely had to pivot pretty extensively at the start of the pandemic, especially since our program is based on that one-to-one, in-person connection. That was our model. So when the pandemic hit our program team had to shift and say, "OK, how do we keep that connection going, knowing that people can't be in-person?" Creativity was really the key to it, just finding ways to keep that connection going for kids who really needed it during that period of time. 

PF: Did you find the pandemic has a bad effect on volunteerism across the board especially when it comes to getting together physically? 

JRM: Yes, absolutely. Once people figured out we were going to be in this for a while, we saw the number of female volunteers come through almost in droves. It was amazing for the girls who were on our waitlist; we completely cleared our waitlist on Martha's Vineyard. But we didn't see the same for the boys. We saw the number of male volunteers drastically reduced and stay reduced. But when things reopened and schools went back in-person, the number of kids being referred to our services more than tripled what it had been prior to the pandemic. 

PF: What is it about the women and girls getting it right, but the men volunteers not showing up? 

JRM: We've speculated as to why that is, but we haven't seen a real concrete answer to it, to be honest. And we're not alone. There are about 280 other affiliates around the United States and everyone's experiencing a similar issue, but maybe not to the same caliber that we're seeing specifically on the Vineyard and the Cape. 

PF: Why is the need so desperate on Martha's Vineyard? 

JRM: That's a good question. With 16 boys, we cut off the waitlist, because we know realistically if these 16 boys waited 500 days, anyone we add to that waitlist is going to wait longer. 

PF: Five hundred days? So, a year-and-a-half or so? 

JRM: That's the average wait-time on Martha's Vineyard right now, yes. There are swaths of people still holed up, and they're not coming out to do the things they used to do. We have to raise this awareness of this need and really focus on the boys who are waiting, and reach out to the male and male-identifying population. All it takes is a few hours a few times a month. 

PF: And the challenge is motivating people at a time when many people don't feel so motivated. 

JRM: Exactly. 

PF: You met last week with the Big Brothers Big Sisters network in Boston. What came out of that discussion, and what is the most pressing need at this point? 

JRM: It's male volunteers, number one. We've never seen a need this high before. It's actually exceeding our need for funding, which as a nonprofit we haven't been in a position like this before, where our volunteer need is greater than our funding need. Let's say COVID goes away next month by some miracle. We're still going to see three years of challenges for kids that were a direct result of what they've experienced over the last two years. 

PF: What does a new adult bring to a child's life that a parent or another relative isn't able to provide? 

JRM: We hear from our Littles when they get older that that person was there for them for no other reason than to just show up. And I think for many kids in our program they've experienced some type of loss in their lives: a parent, a guardian, a sibling, a close relative. And so our program is really about that social and emotional support that kids can't get in school, and may be challenging to get at home.