Big Brothers Big Sisters helps kids seek their dreams. And sometimes, they help them become beauty queens.

At least that’s what Carol Stillwell, a local businesswoman and philanthropist, did for an Asbury Park High School student, spending thousands of dollars on clothing, transportation, and other expenses to help her fulfill her dream of participating in the Miss New Jersey pageant.

That same student introduced Carol at the 2015 Matching Smiles Gala, the 17th annual benefit for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Monmouth and Middlesex counties. This story is one of Robert McCaig’s favorite memories from his time with Big Brother Big Sisters (BBBS), and one of hundreds of moments that illustrate the good that BBBS does in the community.

Robert is the co-chair of the development committee and a board member for BBBS. He recalled the student “stood tall and proud, was beautifully articulate, and gave a very powerful testimony to both Carol and what we do at BBBS.”

What does BBBS do? To put it simply, it makes a difference in the community that leaves a mark on the kids and volunteers alike.

The organization has a partnership with Monmouth University and Asbury Park High School known as Project BAM (the initials coming from BBBS, Asbury, and Monmouth). Project BAM pairs Monmouth students with Asbury Park High School students who are in need of a friend and role model. BBBS targets schools in low-income neighborhoods that have a large population of children living in poverty.

“Asbury Park High School has a low graduation rate. Many of them don’t know much about college, or would be the first person in their family to attend college,” said Morgan Lalavee, a junior psychology major at Monmouth and a Big Sister.

To become a “Big,” one has to commit to meeting with his or her “Little” once a week and be willing to go through an intake process, which includes an application, background check, a mentor training session, and an interview. A normal interaction for Morgan and her “Little” includes meeting for two hours on Monday afternoons twice a month. They have lunch together and catch up before participating in an activity the school runs and picks for the group.

BBBS has found that students involved in the program grow more confident in their social acceptance and believe they will graduate high school.

Morgan joined the program initially because it fit in with her career goals, as she aspires to be a guidance counselor.

“Being a mentor has become an important aspect of my life,” Morgan said. “I still keep in touch with my first little sister. It is a great feeling giving back and being a positive role model for these kids. The kids in this program begin to depend on you and are excited each session to see you.”

The relationships mentors and mentees build creates something incredibly important. Jacquelynn McLaren, manager of School and Site-Based Programs for BBBS, said the program helps get Monmouth University students more involved in the community while creating lasting relationships.

“We find that the mentors get just as much out of the program and the experience as the mentees do,” Jacquelynn said. “By giving university students the opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life, the students themselves grow. It gets the students involved in giving back to their community.”

The program makes a positive influence on so many aspects of the community. It provides the “Littles” a role model and friend, along with opportunities to further their education and get more involved in the community. The “Bigs” have the responsibility to look after another person, which helps them grow into mature adults. When students are in college, it can feel like they’re in a bubble, so breaking out and helping less fortunate kids is incredibly important.

“It’s those types of outreach and care and kindness that makes communities strong,” Robert said. “It serves a critical role in not only the children’s lives, but the community’s livelihood.”

Shannon Orefice, the director of programs for BBBS, was touched by the program so much that she switched gears completely in her career.

“I was in the for-profit world doing corporate events for a long time,” Shannon said. “I got involved as a volunteer for a casino night event, and then I caught the non-profit bug.”

Once a position became available, Shannon got even more involved. She was moved by the huge impact the program had on kids and the community. As someone who grew up in a single-parent home, Shannon said that her brother could have used a program like BBBS.

Keeping the kids of Asbury Park High School safe is the ultimate goal. Instead of being influenced by local gangs or other negative role models, the kids benefit from being mentored by someone who shows them how to be confident and successful, Shannon said.

“We exist to help the children,” Shannon added.

To get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Monmouth and Middlesex counties, you can visit their website at www.bbbsmmc.org and apply to be a mentor or donate to the program.

To hear about more people making a difference in the community, buy your ticket to the TEDxNavesink Makers event coming up in April at Monmouth University.

Photo by PlaSmart Inc