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Gulf & Main Magazine

The Power of Mentors: The Vital Role of Big Brothers Big Sisters

May 07, 2021 03:11PM ● By ANN MARIE O’PHELAN

Some young people need extra assistance and guidance to navigate through their formative years. They may need help applying for a job or college. They may want to unwind and enjoy a social outing or play sports. They may desire a listening ear for moral support or want a pat on the back for a recent accomplishment. These acts of encouragement, offered by volunteer mentors, can help empower today’s youth.

For more than 50 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast (BBBSSC) has been matching youth (ages 6-18) with adult volunteers (18 and older) who dedicate themselves to helping young people reach their goals through a variety of programs. More than 1,800 youth across 10 counties—from Manatee to Collier—have been supported through BBBSSC this past year.

The volunteer mentors are trained and supported by mentor managers, such as Lillyanna Peniza, who has been with the organization for 32 years, first in Massachusetts and now in Southwest Florida. Her job involves everything from conducting interviews to creating and supporting matches between adult volunteer mentors and children. They are matched along a continuum of common interests, personality and proximity. All mentors undergo an FBI-level background check to ensure the safety of the children.

“Currently, I am focused on providing a great deal of match support,” says Peniza. Match support is delivered primarily in the form of phone conversations to provide guidance and support to both the child and the parent or guardian, and to the adult volunteer mentor. “I work to help them accomplish the goals they have set out to achieve together,” she adds. Since Peniza is bilingual—Spanish and English—she can also effectively engage the parents who speak only Spanish.

Kelly Palmer, the regional director of resource development for Lee, Collier and Hendry counties, explains how the system works in today’s unprecedented pandemic times: “We have transitioned our professionally supported one-to-one mentoring services largely to a virtual framework for the time being. We are interviewing and doing intake of adult volunteer mentors and children accompanied by their parents/guardians via video-conferencing and phone calls.”

Adult volunteer mentors—the “Bigs”—are coached, guided and assisted on how to mentor the “Littles” online via virtual channels. Also, videoconferencing tutorials are available for both Bigs and Littles and their families so they can fully leverage technology to facilitate their shared mentorship goals. If Bigs and Littles prefer to meet in person in a safe, socially distant manner, they may do so after signing a release form.

Additionally, BBBSSC’s business- and site-based mentoring programs are conducted virtually, such as the Beyond School Walls program where students get a chance to experience actual working environments. Mentor managers facilitate between BBBSSC and school partners to ensure that all existing mentorship programs continue in the absence of meeting in person. “The mentor managers are innovating and creating new ways to enable exposure of our Littles to the exploration of potential careers, secondary education and civic volunteer opportunities in a virtual context,” explains Palmer.

Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa is among those partners continuing their work virtually. “As a partner in the Beyond School Walls program, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point is thrilled to get the chance for our team members to give back to the community that it serves,” says general manager Brian Kramer.

What makes Big Brothers Big Sisters unique is that one-on-one mentoring enables Bigs and Littles to get together on their own time to engage in their shared interests out in the community. “It allows for a connection and an organic development of a relationship that spans beyond what happens within the context of a single location,” explains Palmer.

A case in point is Peniza, who began mentoring a Little Sister who was eight years old; she is now 22. “She’s doing fabulously. We talk every week,” says Peniza.


Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and a regular contributor to TOTI Media.



Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast (BBBSSC)
Lee/Hendry Office
8280 College Parkway, Suite 201,
Fort Myers



WhatSecond Annual Empowering Potential Campaign with a benefit cocktail party

When: Thursday, May 13, 2021; 6-8 pm

Where: Burroughs Home & Gardens, 2505 First Street, Fort Myers, 239-337-9505;

Event tickets and sponsorships that add to a matching fund are available at