BENNINGTON -- Kara Reimann is a matchmaker, but not in the traditional sense of the word.
About three months ago, she was hired as the new program coordinator for United Counseling Services' Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.
In those three months, Reimann has been busy matching "littles," or children aged 5-14 years in Bennington County, with "bigs" or older, local individuals who serve as mentors, all in the name of friendship.
Adopted by United Counseling Services about 20 years ago, Reimann explained that the BBBS program strives to forge lasting, multi-generational relationships within the community.
"There is so much value in a program like this," she said. "I think that a lot of kids nowadays, after they get out of school, either watch TV or play video games. They don't have any type of social interaction with an adult, they need that connection to make them feel valued."
Reimann went on to say that the BBBS program exposes children to experiences that they wouldn't normally be exposed to, all the while in the company of a trusted adult.
"A mentor isn't just someone the kids hang out with a couple times a month," she said. "It's someone they really look forward to seeing, to spending time with."
In order to make these perfect matches, Reimann spends time really getting to know the candidates.
"I try to get down to the nitty gritty, ask them all sorts of questions and try to find out what their ideal little would be, would they be quiet, talkative, artsy," she said. "We don't want to give mentors more than they can chew, and we want matches that have longevity.
"Ideally, we would love ‘bigs' to see their ‘littles' go all the way through high school."
According to Reimann, there are three components, or sub-programs, that comprise the BBBS program.
The first is the Lunchtime Mentoring program, which has been implemented in schools throughout Bennington County.
Once a week, "bigs" visit their "littles" during the hour between lunch and recess to read, talk, and eat.
According to Reimann, students are chosen to participate with help from school guidance counselors, who work to identify students who could benefit from being involved in the program.
These students might be struggling academically or perhaps have attendance issues.
"The idea is that having a mentor would help maybe solve some of these problems," Reimann. "Then, pre- and post-assessments of each child are conducted to see if the program is helping them in any way. The hope is, obviously, to see that it is."
Reimann noted that Bennington Elementary's Lunchtime program was somewhat dwindling when she came aboard, with only one big-little match remaining in the entire school.
However, during her short time as program coordinator, Reimann said that she has successfully matched seven additional big-little pairs in Bennington Elementary alone, with 19 "bigs" patiently waiting to be matched with a "little" in other schools as well.
"We've had so many applicants for this program," she said. "It's been kind of overwhelming, but in a good way."
The second program, known as the After School program, has been tailored specifically for Bennington Elementary students.
Reimann explained that an ongoing partnership with Southern Vermont College helps this program thrive, with students visiting Bennington Elementary students once a week, for an hour and a half.
Reimann utilizes her art education background while supervising the After School program, coordinating a wide range of activities including arts and crafts and games for "bigs" and "littles" to enjoy together.
According to Reimann, there are currently five big-little pairs participating in the After School program, which kicked off last week.
Finally, the Community program is based outside of a school setting.
"The bigs and littles hang out for one to three hours every week," Reimann said. "The schedule is based off both the mentor's schedule, as well as the mentee's. Most importantly, we ask that the mentors don't spend any money on whatever activity they choose to do. It's all about just spending time together."
This program, Reimann explained, is the one parents often have the most difficulty feeling comfortable with, as the activities are not as closely supervised as those of other BBBS programs.
However, Reimann said that all candidates complete multiple interviews and extensive background checks to ensure the safety of each child.
According to Reimann, she and Sue Pierce, the newly appointed BBBS program coordinator for the Northshire area, are working hard to recruit new mentors throughout Bennington County, especially men.
"Trying to find men who want to be ‘bigs' has definitely been a challenge," she said. "We have a ton of women, college age and up, who have been interested, but we're really looking to match boys with some positive male role models. A lot of these boys don't have a male figure in their lives. It's so important."
Despite this challenge, Reimann is pleased with the progress and growth that has occurred since she began as project coordinator.
"We have a total of 49 ‘bigs' right now and when I came on, there were 22," Reimann said, noting that she hopes to collaborate with SVC students to boost the program's online presence, which will hopefully encourage more community members to volunteer.
In addition to growing the various sub-programs of BBBS, Reimann said she also hopes to become more involved in the community, along with the "bigs" and "littles."
She has already planned a day of volunteering on December 8 at the Second Congregational Church, during which time the mentors and their mentees will help serve a meal at the soup kitchen.
Reimann said there are no additional community involvement days besides that one planned as of yet, but that more are sure to be planned in the near future.
"Community involvement is something I really want to emphasize with this program," Reimann said. "Yes, the mentors are doing a great thing already, but I want to do more."
And doing more she is. In fact, Reimann has decided to go through the application process to become a big sister, herself, with hopes of being paired with a Pownal Elementary student.
"Watching all the ‘bigs' and ‘littles' together makes me want to be involved and give back, too," Reimann said. "Right now, we're having trouble finding people who want to drive out to Pownal, so I thought, ‘why not? I'm just going to do it.' I feel like if I'm trying to promote this program, I might as well be fully immersed in it."
Reimann hopes to be paired with her "little" within the next week or two.
"I feel like this program is so meaningful," she said. "I'm excited to be a part of it on a different level."
Those interested in becoming involved in the BBBS program can contact Reimann at 802-442-5491 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.