Agency, Big Brothers Big Sisters partner to help youth

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, Deputy Chief
CDCR Office of External Affairs
Photos courtesy Big Brothers Big Sisters Sacramento

It’s a small action with a massive impact: spending time with a child. The simple act of sharing space and time with a young person can cause ripple effects that last a lifetime, and those effects can be even greater if the adult is committed to public safety and community service. Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sacramento Area (BBBS) is partnering with regional law enforcement to create those officer/child partnerships, and a CDCR couple with strong correctional safety ties has stepped up to serve.

Through the “Bigs with Badges” program, Sgt. Vanessa Melendez and her husband, Lt. Chance Andes, have been matched with two “Littles,” A’vonti, 10, and Christian, 9. Both “Bigs” say they’re getting just as much out of the match as the kids are.

Melendez and her Little, A’Vonti, have been matched since April, and Andes and Christian were matched this fall.

“It’s a natural collaboration between our agency and law enforcement, because law enforcement is already doing the work, acting as mentors, and trying to improve the community,” said BBBS Chief Executive Officer Theresa Scherber.

For more than 100 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been giving children the opportunity to spend quality time with responsible adults, from attending sporting events and seeing movies to just taking a walk or having a chat. Even the most seemingly mundane activities have big results: The national organization reports that Littles are significantly less likely to use drugs and alcohol than a non-matched child, and BBBS reports that 93 percent of their Littles graduate high school.

In Sacramento, more than 80 percent of the youth served by BBBS live in poverty, and varying socioeconomic challenges result in reduced school attendance, lower high school graduation rates, and an increased likelihood of experimenting with drugs or alcohol at a young age. By pairing with law enforcement, BBBS aims to see even more positive impact on public safety and student success.

“We both have a commitment to bridging the gap between the community and law enforcement,” said Andes, who works in CDCR’s Class Action Management Unit. “We have a commitment to the community in general, but we really strive together toward making sure we bridge this gap, especially right now because it’s just not very good. We want to share the bright side of it, and maybe change some opinions and hopefully educate some individuals on what to do to better connect with your community.”

Through Bigs with Badges, Big/Little matches have been made with Sacramento Sheriffs’ Department, Placer Sheriff, Placer County Youth Probation, Sacramento Police, Sacramento Probation, Roseville Police and the Police Activities League, Woodland Police, Woodland Fire, Citrus Heights Police, California Correctional Peace Officers Association and CDCR. Matches in progress include West Sacramento Police, Rocklin Police, Folsom Police, Rancho Cordova Police and the California Highway Patrol.

Melendez shared that when she was a child, she would have been categorized as “at risk”; however, through various volunteer programs she learned the value of giving back to her community. One of those programs was the Police Explorers, where she learned all about the mentoring role law enforcement can play in the lives of children.

BBBS estimates that 25 percent of the children they serve have parents who are incarcerated. While Bigs with Badges is not a diversion program, the presence of a mentor, especially one involved in public safety, can have big results in helping youth make better choices and better understand the role of law enforcement.

“Sometimes, within the demographic that we serve, they have a jaded perspective of law enforcement,” Scherber said. “It’s mutually beneficial, because they’re able to go in and build trust and rapport within the community they serve.”

The benefits aren’t just for the Littles – helping children has a positive impact on Bigs as well, especially law enforcement members, including CDCR employees, who work long hours in high-stress, sometimes dangerous settings.

“What officers see on a daily basis, the negativity and everything they endure just in their job and serving the community – I think it’s always nice to be reminded of the innocence of a child,” Scherber said.

Melendez agrees, sharing that for CDCR staff and law enforcement in general, witnessing traumatic events is part of the job. And while there are resources available for the toll those take on a person, she sees Bigs with Badges as a resource, as well.

“To be able to share moments with her where it’s just pure happiness, it’s very pure, and innocent, and fun,” she said. “It just really helps your mind and your soul. She definitely has a very positive influence on me, and that’s something that I cherish from this mentorship.”

Melendez, who works in background investigations for CDCR, said while she doesn’t share private details about her work, including her time working in state prisons, she does keep it real with A’Vonti, answering her questions about being a peace officer and how law enforcement is perceived in communities and the media.

“I make sure to stay true to myself and I am always going to be who I am, and never stray from that,” she said. “At the end of the day, the underlying message I give her is just to be who you are, be humble and be kind, and do everything with pride, integrity and honesty.”

BBBS’ biggest need right now is volunteers, as there is no shortage of Littles waiting for their match. Currently there are 46 boys and 20 girls waiting for matches. And for those potential Bigs who don’t live in the Sacramento region, Big Brothers Big Sisters is a national organization with chapters available throughout the state; learn more at bbbs.org.

Bigs come from diverse backgrounds, all types of jobs and home lives, they’re married, single, have big families, have no children – the only thing they’re required to have is the ability to safely and positively influence a child. Bigs go through intensive screening by BBBS staff, including a background check, home visit and interview with staff and the Little and his or her family.

In addition to ruling out any safety concerns, BBBS are also looking to making a good match in terms of interests and backgrounds.

“I was really nervous,” Melendez said, remembering the first time she met A’vonti. “I didn’t know what to expect. But I could see the smile on her face and how excited she was to be part of the program, and I think it was apparent that I was expressing the same thing.”

Once everybody agrees this is a good match, the Big commits to a year of service consisting of an average of two visits with their Little per month. But Scherber says those matches often last much longer – and many have a lifelong impact on the folks involved.

“Right now our average match length is 33 months,” Scherber said. “That simply just shows the success of our team and the ability to make sure that we are appropriately placing the right child with the right volunteer.”

Those visits don’t have to be anything extravagant – in fact, Bigs are discouraged from spending too much money on the outings, as the point of the program is to simply share quality time together. Common activities include going to the movies, playing board games, or going on a hike.

“The activities are really insignificant,” Scherber shared. “What’s really important is that consistent person who is checking in.”

Andes emphasized the importance of that quality time, not just for the Little, but for the Big who is most likely working a hectic schedule. Someone considering Bigs with Badges shouldn’t be daunted by the time commitment, he said, as it’s flexible and can consist of something as casual as having a conversation.

“That time is not to be on your phone, it’s for you and your Little to get that quality time. That six hours is a quality six hours, and it’s spent together. People don’t realize these days, with all the technology, how much of an effect just an hour of talking can have on both sides.”

A’Vonti and Melendez enjoy going to lunch or the zoo, going to A’Vonti’s gymnastics classes, painting pottery and helping train Melendez’s dog. But one of their favorite activities is one that involves no expense whatsoever.

“We play this game where we dare each other to give people compliments,” Melendez smiled. “It’s just kind of a silly little thing we do, but it teaches you to be nice to people and to be good to people, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Both Melendez and Andes encourage their CDCR co-workers to get involved with their communities, whether that’s through Bigs with Badges or other charitable outreach. For those who are considering BBBS, Melendez advises potential Bigs to be prepared for open communication with their Little and his or her guardian, to be a positive role model, and to have lots of fun. Melendez is a believer in the Gandhi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and challenges her fellow peace officers to focus on the positive things they can do in their communities, and to step up and be that change.

“There are a lot of us who just naturally mentor,” Melendez said. “We’ve done it in the facilities where we work, and I’m sure we can make a huge impact in the community. And if we did it as a team, if more people got involved, we can make a huge difference in people’s lives. You can enrich someone’s life, and that Little can make a big difference in your life as well.”

LEARN MORE: January is National Mentoring Month, a campaign held each year to promote youth mentoring in the United States. To learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters Sacramento, visit bbbs-sac.org. To learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters nationwide, visit bbbs.org.

You can read more about Sgt. Melendez and A’Vonti here. Follow their adventures on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/aj_ness_bbbs/.