For one couple and two kids, exploring, learning, and growing goes both ways
From left, Gene Wrinn, Diane Wrinn, Kevin New (in mask), and Zaira Pacheco.

For one couple and two kids, exploring, learning, and growing goes both ways

Bigs and Littles alike agree that volunteering for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont opens the door to change

PUTNEY — A few hours a month can change a life. And it could be yours.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont is looking for adult mentors (known as Bigs) to match one-on-one with youth ages six to 17 and older (known as Littles). Currently, more than 95 children in Vermont are waiting for a mentor.

BBBSVT is dedicated to defending the potential of children and youth through one-on-one mentoring, an evidence-based method of prevention that keeps young people engaged, builds resilience, and helps to mitigate the negative effects of trauma.

Mentors make a real difference by providing a safe space for young people to explore, learn, and grow, sparking their potential for a bright future.

Mentors are all ages, from college students to retirees. Matches meet two or three times a month and establish connections through shared interests, activities, and outings. Community-based, school-based, and virtual options are available.

“Mentoring is flexible for people with busy schedules,” said Kimberley Diemond, executive director of BBBSVT. “Some employers will even grant paid time off during the workday while employees volunteer. You can participate as an individual, a couple, or a family.”

“There is an option for everyone,” she said.

A Big and a Little find connection with skating, sewing

The best way to learn what it means to be a Big is to hear from those who have mentored in the BBBSVT program.

Diane and Gene Wrinn, a married couple, have mentored their Littles for several years. They and their Littles were chosen as BBBSVT Match of the Year in 2021. As part of the application process, the Bigs and Littles had to write essays about their experience.

From the time they first met Zaira Pacheco, Diane said in her essay, the Wrinns knew that she was a very capable student. “We planned many activities as we began our friendship,” she wrote.

One of the pleasures of the mentoring relationship is the sharing of skills and interests. When she learned of Zaira's interests in cooking and sewing, Diane wrote, “We spent many afternoons baking cookies, which Zaira skillfully decorated. I believe that one of her favorites is banana bread that she proudly brings home to share with her family.”

Another project they worked on together one afternoon was sewing a set of French seam pillowcases.

“Using each of our own hand-picked fabrics,” Diane wrote, “we set up sewing machines on my kitchen table, spending the afternoon measuring, cutting, sewing, seam ripping, then re-sewing. The project finished, we each walked away with a beautiful set of handmade pillowcases.”

Diane learned that Zaira likes to go ice skating at the local rink. Even though she hadn't skated in many years, Diane was game to try. She describes how she made her way around the rink using one of the skating aids designed for youth just learning to skate.

“I'm sure Zaira may have been somewhat embarrassed,” Diane wrote, “but she remained by my side and encouraged me, to the point that after many outings, I was able to shed the skating aid and motivate around the rink unaided.”

Zaira is equally enthusiastic about Diane.

“My Big is really special to me for many reasons,” she wrote. “She pushes me to be the best I can be with constant support. I know I can always count on my Big, and I have learned many things [from her] - how to bake and sew, while also learning how to provide customer service. She offered to let me work at her shop, and it was very enjoyable.

“During quarantine, it was really hard to figure out something that we both can do together without actually being together,” Zaira continued. “But she found a way for us to stay in contact and still have fun. My Big bought me a sewing machine so we could do projects together on FaceTime. It really helped fill up the space of not being able to see each other.”

Zaira's mother, Melissa Pacheco, also wrote an essay.

“Enrolling my child in the program has been one of the best decisions I have made,” she wrote. “My daughter's Big has had a big impact on her for the better. My daughter's Big has taught her how to sew and create new things. This is important because it is a basic life skill that everyone should know, and my daughter can provide for herself.”

“My daughter has made progress in reaching her potential, thanks to her Big,” she wrote.

Bonding through woodworking and fishing

In 2016, Gene was transitioning from a career of over 30 years in law enforcement to a career in child protection. Having mentored for several years already, Diane convinced him that he would now have some time to give a youth one-on-one mentoring.

He didn't need much convincing - in his work he had seen too many youths who have, in his words, “fallen through the cracks and [been] forced to fend for themselves.”

Gene wrote in his essay that he first met with Kevin New, who was then 12, and his grandmother, Lou Roberts, at the BB/BS of VT office. After a couple of games of Jenga, Gene felt that he and Kevin would be a match. In the following months, they began to share interests.

Having some experience with woodworking projects, Gene wrote, “I asked Kevin if he would like to try his hand at woodworking. Our projects slowly grew in size: a Viking chair, a wall-hanging write-on board with mounted coat hangers for his room, a large oak mirror for a family member's wedding gift, and an oak quilt hanger for his grandmother.”

As the two worked on the projects, Gene continued, they talked, and Gene heard about Kevin's hunting and fishing expeditions with his grandfather.

“Not being a fisherman myself,” Gene wrote, “Kevin convinced me to get a fishing license and some fishing gear. We tried our hand at summer fishing without much luck but, never to be deterred, Kevin talked me into an ice fishing outing one winter. Definitely a very cold day, but to watch Kevin controlling a number of fishing lines was well worth the risk of frostbite.”

Over the past five years (and counting) Gene and Kevin have shared many additional activities, including hiking Mount Wantastiquet, water skiing, winter tubing, downhill skiing, bowling, and corn maze meandering.

“I have spent countless hours over the years learning of some of the challenges that Kevin has faced and how he has persevered and grown into a polite, well-mannered youth that anyone would enjoy spending time with,” Gene wrote. “Our time together is not about spending a lot of money or participating in large activities, but rather giving us both the opportunity to talk and listen and learn from each other.”

In his essay, Kevin wrote, “Gene Wrinn is one of the best men I've ever met. He's more than an amazing role model. He's helped teach me to be a man of my word, always put in your best effort when doing something, put pride into your work, always help others when you can, always be honest, and most importantly, no matter how hard life hits you, you just gotta get back up and keep on trucking.”

Kevin's grandmother wrote that Kevin needed a good, stable mentor, and Gene Wrinn is that person, adding, “He has been there when Kevin needed someone to talk to, [he] has taught Kevin the importance of family, and while doing woodworking projects together, he has taught him patience, follow-through, and craftsmanship.”

BBBSVT Match Support Specialist and Program Coordinator Karen Brook wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged every match to find ways to stay connected. In-person visits were stopped in March 2020.

Struggling to remain in touch, Diane wrote that she and Zaira took to virtual meetings.

“One of the first meetings,” she continued, “was a sewing project [that would be] our first real test of providing and following directions between ourselves - sewing valances for her windows. Meeting on FaceTime, which she was more familiar with than I, we began our project. By the end of the two-hour FaceTime meeting, we each had a set of newly handmade valances for our windows, which Zaira quickly hung in her room. I will admit, we were pretty impressed with each other.”

Although summer visits could resume in 2020 if the visits were outdoors and all concerned were comfortable with the plan, Gene and Kevin decided against it.

“While Gene and Kevin understood that they personally were at low risk [from] the virus,” Brook wrote, “they both live with people who were at much higher risk. Their solution has been to talk on the phone and check in with each other on a regular basis.”

Gene and Kevin have recently met, Gene said in an email, “to grab a bite to eat. There have been many things happening in both our lives, and it was good to spend time talking and picking up where things left off during the pandemic. I would like to encourage other adults to think about the program and consider volunteering to mentor a youth.”

Over time, mentoring reveals itself to be a reciprocal process - change is not all on one side.

“This match has shown me that one person can truly make a change in a person's life,” Diane wrote. “We have both learned, grown, and appreciate this match.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates