Volunteers and families involved with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in southern Illinois learned earlier this spring the initiative would be cut - in part because of the state's budget impasse.
Nine-year-old Shai is a “little brother” in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. At least he was, until budget pressures forced a local social service agency to cancel the program. Shai’s mom, Sharifa, says it’s difficult.
“I couldn’t even go back and say, you know, exactly how I was feeling. I was just thinking, ‘Wow, he’d just established a good relationship with Aur, and now it has to end.’”
But they’re making the best of it. Shai’s “big brother,” Aur Beck, says he’s glad he got involved when he did – even though he did have some reservations.
“I honestly would have never done this if I didn’t have – I mean, this is like the ultimate dating game. They spend a couple of months, interviewing us, and helping us match up. A perfect match.”
A match, Aur and Shai say, that’s gotten them out of their comfort zones, exploring the region and learning about each other. They ride bikes, go hiking, visit The Science Center of Southern Illinois, and hang out.
Even though Big Brothers/Big Sisters doesn’t technically exist, Aur says he wasn’t willing to give up.
“We still hang out, because we’re friends and family. That’s the whole point.”
And for that, Sharifa’s grateful.
“We never spoke about whether he was going to continue. So he just showed up the next week, and I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, I’m still going to hang out with Shai.’ And so I just gave him a big hug and said thank you.”
Sharifa initially contacted Big Brothers/Big Sisters several years ago for her older son, who’s now 19. She says that process involved a waiting list, and her son eventually aged out of the program before being paired. She says she wasn’t expecting Shai to be matched, but she’s really glad he was.
“Young males, they need to connect with older men. To have that kind of bond. Because there are things that he may want to share, but may feel uncomfortable with me. So he may feel comfortable sharing with Aur, or with his big brother.”
Budget pressures forced Centerstone, a southern Illinois Social Service agency, to disband the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program this spring. Leaders say it was a difficult decision, but one that had to be made as the organization worked to protect its core mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
Sharifa says she’s glad Aur and Shai were matched before the cuts happened – so their relationship can continue now.
“He’s a lot like me,” Aur says, laughing. Sharifa agrees. “Like, he has so much energy, but he has an intense focus on certain thing. Aur compliments him well when it comes to being creative.”
And Shai says he likes sharing and learning with Aur, and is glad the two are able to continue getting together, even without a formal program for them to be a part of.
It’s unclear what’ll happen to Big Brothers/Big Sisters in the future. Advocates for social services across the state point to examples like this as they call for full funding in this fiscal year, and in the years to come.