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Washtenaw United: BBBS Of Washtenaw County Prioritizes Justice, Equity, Diversity And Inclusion

Jennifer Spitler
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County

For over a century, Big Brothers Big Sisters has mentored at-risk children around the country. It has fostered lifelong connections and friendships resulting in postive outcomes for marginalzed and at-risk youngsters. As expected, the pandemic and the many racially-charged events over the past year-and-a-half present more challenges. WEMU's David Fair checked in with Jennifer Spitler, the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County, to see how the "Bigs" and "Littles" are faring. 

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area.  And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services.  It is a community voice.  It is 'Washtenaw United.'




Jennifer Spitler is a Licensed Social Worker in the State of Michigan – attended EMU for both of her degrees. She’s been with BBBS for 19 years, believing that there’s no better way to affect change in the world, than to support a young person’s growth.


Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County (BBBS)



During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, UWWC invested $17,500 in BBBS which allowed them to help meet the basic needs of families with youth served through BBBS and ensure they have the support needed to continue learning at home.

Providing Washtenaw County youth with a supportive, caring, and nurturing mentor is fundamental in their development to become a responsible, socially competent, and caring adult. The friendship and support provided by the mentor are necessary to help the child reach their potential as they navigate through life’s challenges. BBBS mentors are friends, confidants, and role models that help youth expand their opportunities and embrace new experiences - positive relationships with caring adults are a vitamin that supports strong academic and life outcomes..

On average, BBBS-WC contributes over 15,000 mentoring hours annually, which increases kids feeling socially accepted, expectations to go to college, and negative attitudes towards risky behaviors. However, there still exists a considerable inequity of kids in need of positive adult mentoring relationships to support and defend their potential. Delivering mentoring and building positive adult-youth relationships has been complicated by the pandemic, and are even more crucial as youth navigate another atypical return to school this fall.

From 2014-2016, BBBS was awarded an annual grant totaling just under $65k for their community and school mentoring program through the Washtenaw Coordinated Funders, of which UWWC is a partner.

Historically, BBBS-WC has been funded through Coordinated Funding for their Community Based Mentoring Program. In total, UWWC has invested more $100K throughout the years.


David Fair: [00:00:00] This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity. I'm David Fair and through our partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, we go in search of those working to create a community wherein there is true equality for all people. We call it Washtenaw United for that reason. Our guest today can certainly be counted among them. Jennifer Spitler is executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County. I'm so glad you can make time for us today, Jennifer.

Jennifer Spitler: [00:00:27] Well, thank you for having me.

David Fair: [00:00:29] Today is the day in most K through 12 kids are back to school today, and, for some, it's the first time they'll be in a classroom in more than a year. So much of what Big Brothers Big Sisters is about is about personal connection, time together, learning to take inspiration from one another, and gaining the tools to apply it. How much has that been hindered by the pandemic?

Jennifer Spitler: [00:00:50] Wow. You know, it's interesting. I think for the matches that we have had that have been ongoing. Those that were made prior to the pandemic, I don't know that it's been hindered a lot. I mean, it's been hindered some, right? They haven't been able to get together in the same way, but their connections have stayed strong. Some have grown much stronger, I think, because they've communicated in different ways and probably dove deeper into subjects and had to learn differently to communicate with one another.

David Fair: [00:01:26] During this time, we've been dealing with very public issues of police brutality, housing and educational inequities, access to food, environmental injustice, and the systemic policies that lead to racism. Ask most people of color. They'll rightly tell you they've been dealing with that for over 400 years. But the renewed manner in which these issues are being dealt with publicly kind of demand conversation and interaction, perhaps, as you just touched upon in more in-depth and meaningful ways. Has it been your experience in the hearing back from big brothers and little brothers and big sisters and little sisters that that is actually the case?

Jennifer Spitler: [00:02:04] It really is. And I think it really depends on the age of the big and the little--or the little specifically. And I think it depends on where they are in their relationship development in terms of how much they delve into those topics. We talk to bigs about how to start conversations or how to open the conversation, but we really leave it to the littles if it's something that they're comfortable and they want to talk about and they want to dive further into. Then, the big is there for that. But if it's a little who, they're just not there. The big is accepting of that as well. And so, each relationship is different, you know, just like any adult relationship, you know, just personal to them.

David Fair: [00:02:48] Washtenaw United and our conversation with Jennifer Spitler from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. As we talk about these issues and the impacts on today's kid, I think it also a value to hearken back to the beginnings. In 1904 in New York City, a law clerk named Ernest Colter noticed an increasing number of boys coming through the juvenile court system and thought there just had to be a way to get volunteers to help keep them out of trouble. Now, 117 years later, we're still having many of the same conversations, Mr. Colter's vision--that's still really at the heart of what you do, isn't it?

Jennifer Spitler: [00:03:24] It really is. You know, we're a prevention program. We're not necessarily an intervention program. We know that many of the things and the challenges that kids face are systemic, where there are barriers in place for many young people to see and envision what their future could be. And when you put a big in the life of a young person, you give them some opportunities and experiences, conversation starters to tap into, right? We all start there. We have these dreams as kids. But when things get put on top of that that you can't or you don't know enough or that's too big of a dream, really, you're going to be an NBA star, you're going to be a doctor or...it squashes many times. And when you don't see folks in your community maybe achieving those things or just, you know, it just doesn't seem attainable. You know, a big really is there to walk that path, helping to find those sparks, bring that back out in young people and give them some of the tools, you know, skills that are necessary to get to that goal or to get to that dream they've always had. It's there. They just don't always talk about it, or they don't feel like anyone's going to listen to it. But that one-to one--time. That's really the goal of it. Someone that listens helps them achieve.

David Fair: [00:04:57] And, Jennifer, I want to come back around to kind of where we started. The kids are back in school, and some fell behind last year during online and virtual instruction. Most are back in the classroom this year. Have you and your staff and volunteers discussed perhaps providing some additional attention to academics and making sure nobody's falling through the cracks?

Jennifer Spitler: [00:05:16] Well, that's one thing that we've always done--our bigs. You know, we say they walk alongside. They walk along side and all of those elements. Supporting kids socially, emotionally, as well as academically. Many times supporting and advocating for them, giving them the tools and the words and the language to advocate for themselves. But what we're seeing with our kids, first and foremost, is they are very excited to go back to school. They're excited to see their friends. I think that probably without saying it, because I know that they always have the words, the structure, and that safe space, and that place where kind of know what's going to happen throughout the day. I do think there's going to be challenges. And I think kids know that. You know, we know they've lost academically. But I think you forget what they've gained in building resiliency and getting through this pandemic and being able to figure out how to do online learning and being able to figure out how to interact on a screen. I mean, these are skills that will take them further. We just have to get back to the academics. So, yes, the bigs are always there to have those not only conversations about academics, but things are always doing homework with kids, going to the library, helping them with class projects, there to support in whatever way. And I foresee that we'll see a bit more of that this year, as they get back into that routine of what school work looks like pre-pandemic. I think we'll see more of that.

David Fair: [00:06:53] Once again, we're talking with Jennifer Spitler on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And you mentioned that there is a waiting list. There are more kids that want a big brother or big sister than there are big brothers and big sisters. You talked about the gains that the kids in the program did make last year. Those who were on the waiting list did not have that same opportunity. You have an upcoming five K event. What is the goal of that in getting the community more aware and perhaps involved?

Jennifer Spitler: [00:07:22] Well, the five K is really cool. It's the first time we've done anything like this, and we're partnering with Unity Vibrations and Ypsi, and Eastern is providing us with space and we're starting and ending on campus. But it really is a way for us to not only raise the money to support mentoring and our work in the community, but, you know, it's obviously a way to engage more people in the community to learn more about being a big and what it is that we do within our program, what enrollment looks like, what the support that we provide to our bigs and littles is. So, you know, just to get the word out more on the ground as opposed to some of our bigger fundraisers that we've done for years--the galas and that kind of thing. This really was an opportunity and something that we had been targeting, which was to just engage community more in not only fundraising, but recruiting bigs to it as well. So, September 19th. It's a Sunday. You can find all the information on our website.

David Fair: [00:08:25] You have stated the goal is to become the foremost justice, equity, diversion, and inclusion empowerment organization. Well, that requires more people, and that's what the Five K is about. But what do you tell people directly who may be on the fence about becoming involved?

Jennifer Spitler: [00:08:42] It takes commitment, that it's easy, and you get more out of it typically than you feel like you give to it. And we hear it time and time and time again. And I feel like in times like these, we have learned how much relationships matter. You know, in this last year and a half, think about when we were locked out and we couldn't see our family, we couldn't see our friends and those connections, what this isolation has felt like for adults. Kids are developing. And it's so important that they have these connections, not only social connections, but that, you know, that social capital that helps them build what they need to be successful. It takes a couple hours a month, a couple outings, a couple of connections. They bring so much joy. They remind you to be kids. You go and explore things that you haven't thought about as an adult in many to, you know, sometimes you're out there, you're trying things you haven't done. We really try to build equity by creating the matches, creating both, creating goals. So the bigs have goals for themselves that a little can support, and the littles create goals that the bigs can support, so that they are both supporting each other and becoming better people. And so, you're going to get out of this as a volunteer, just as much you get to it, and the kids really need the support right now,

David Fair: [00:10:04] I'd like to thank you so much for taking the time today, Jennifer. I appreciate it.

Jennifer Spitler: [00:10:08] Well, thank you for having me, Dave. I appreciate it.

David Fair: [00:10:11] That is Jennifer Spitler, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County. To find out more about the program, about the upcoming five K, and the work that Jennifer and her team are doing in our community about how you can become involved, visit our Web site at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine One WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him atdfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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