November 29, 2022 •
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by  Clifford Kulwin Star LedgerGuest columnist

First responders are today’s heroes. The nurses, doctors and others who daily put their lives on the line teach us about concern, compassion, and especially, courage.

But others, who may not be endangering their physical health, are also on the front lines of protecting the most vulnerable.

Nine-year-old Sofia lives in Newark with her mother and 16-year-old brother. Her father is absent. Sofia is quiet, well behaved, but often timid. Her mother, whose English is poor and works as a janitor, does not have the means to be the mother she wants to be, especially now. The family lives on the edge in the best of times and these are not the best of times.

If Sofia’s mother doesn’t work, she’ll lose her job. Her brother is often “out” and Sofia is frequently alone. A critical lifeline is Nancy, her “big,” through Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Nancy and Sofia have been matched for three years. They normally meet up a couple of times a week for dinner, a walk, a homework session or just to sit and talk. Since Nancy came into the picture, Sofia’s self-confidence has improved, as have her grades. She’s begun to speak up in class, which her teachers like. Sofia’s mother is beyond grateful for Nancy’s warmth and caring.

Now, that warmth and caring are critically important. The two can’t get together in person but they FaceTime almost every day. They share feelings about what is going in the world, Sofia worries aloud about if her mother gets sick, they review Sofia’s homework and play online games together. Sofia knows she can call Nancy whenever she wants.

Sofia is one of many scared little girls in our community right now, but largely thanks to Nancy, she’s doing OK.

Sofia and Nancy — not their real names — teach us a scary truth about times like this.

Many of us are fortunate. We work remotely and have money in the bank, our health insurance is solid and we have a strong network of family and friends.

Then there are the Sofias and their families, whose employment (if any) is tentative, whose family members needing attention are left hanging, whose resources, in general, are paltry.

At times of crisis, the marginal among us become even more marginal. Their hard lives get even harder.

Carlos Lejnieks, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Union and Hudson, maintains that COVID-19 has not created new problems for its young clients as much as made ongoing problems worse.

“Kids already spending too much time alone are spending more time alone. Most of our kids depend on free breakfast and lunch at school for important nutrition. The food is available, but it’s hard to get it into the hands (and stomachs) of all who need it. Kids from challenging demographics already had lots of anxiety. Now they have it worse. In the face of that, their Big becomes a calming force, offering stability in a world gone crazy.”

BBBS board member Wendy Lacey, the founder of Cornerstone Montclair, which creates work opportunities for variously abled individuals, agrees. “It is no secret that during times of crisis, it is the most vulnerable who are hit the hardest.”

The Bigs are important in unexpected ways. Their volunteer orientation includes training to detect the early warning signs of children and families in distress. When the signs appear — which they have more frequently lately — the Bigs alert their BBBS match specialist who gets involved, and can call upon other kinds of support.

The current crisis has had unanticipated consequences. At the end of 2019, the Newark- based office oversaw 1,152 matches, which translates into a community of over 4,000 Bigs, Littles and family members. The current number is down roughly 10% because with the courts not functioning, background checks on potential new Bigs are on hold.

Perhaps nothing can be done about that, but let’s be clear: it’s not merely an inconvenience. It’s keeping needy kids from having a caring adult in their lives.

Every Big I spoke to repeated one particular point: whether it’s FaceTime, Zoom, or another platform, virtually all communication now takes place with video. Before, it was a text or a phone call. Now, seeing the other person’s face has become critical. At such a tense moment, it’s easy to understand why.

BBBS quickly developed new programs that are compatible with “social distancing.” Alma Schneider of Take Back the Kitchen teaches a Zoom class, giving her a chance to share a special passion: healthy cooking. “It’s exciting to engage a population that often doesn’t realize eating right can be easy, inexpensive and delicious.”

Other virtual programs have quickly dotted the BBBS calendar. But the one-to-one relationship between Big and Little remains the core.

“I think back to the many things I used to do with mentors who were critical in my life,” Carlos offered. “But, most important, was the feeling that someone understood me and saw my potential when I wasn’t always able to see it in myself.”

Will Sofia say that about Nancy one day? I wouldn’t be surprised. And just as Nancy has supported and loved Sofia through a childhood filled with more challenges than any child should have to face, she is Sofia’s anchor in facing the very troubled waters that now surround us all.

These are anxious times for all but they are more anxious for the Sofias among us. Nancy and all Bigs are truly first responders to many so desperately in need. Clifford Kulwin, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston, is a member of the Advisory Board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union.

At times of crisis, the marginal among us become even more marginal. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Union and Hudson is trying to bridge that gap, making it easier for young people. Platforms such as FaceTime and Zoom allow virtual face-to-face communication between “Bigs” and “Littles” as a substitute for in-person visits during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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