Critics often accuse videogames of being bad for kids, but for many volunteers with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, gaming has been a valuable way of reaching out to children and providing them with much-needed role models, mentors and friends.
"Playing videogames was important when we first started to go on outings," says Matt, 31, a volunteer Big Brother from London, Ontario, who has been partnered with his 15-year-old "Little," Patrick, for more than five years. "It gave my Little an opportunity to do something he enjoys and let his mind drift off being nervous around a new person. We were also able to chat casually while playing and avoided any awkward silences during conversation lapses."
Since those early gaming sessions, Matt and Patrick's relationship has grown into a strong friendship based on shared fun.
Big Brothers volunteer Mike, 29, also bonded with his Little Brother, Timmy, through gaming. Since February, the pair have taken advantage of Mike's home theater projector to play GameCube on a 100-inch screen or partnered up for RPG sessions on his PC. Mike says gaming was crucial to getting the boy to open up. "He saw that I was just there to have some fun with him, so he could let his guard down and be more relaxed. He was a little shy at first, but now I can't get him to shut up!"
Having a Big Brother or Sister can make a big difference for a child, says Steve Bevan, Communications Specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada. Littles range in age between 6 and 16 and come from a variety of family backgrounds - not just single-parent homes, as is commonly thought. Volunteers spend time with the kids enrolled in the program - as little as one hour a week - and act as a friend, confidante and all-around guide to the world of growing up.
The program's benefits are tangible. According to the BBBSC website, children who were Littles graduate from high school at a rate 20 percent higher than Canada's national average. Former Littles are more likely to attend college or university than others their age. And 78 percent of the Littles who come from a family on social assistance no longer have to rely on that income when they're older.
"Sometimes it's not even obvious to the volunteers at the time, but many years later, the Littles come back with stories about how much it helped guide them or gave them something special to look forward to and how they hold those memories in high regard as adults," Bevan says.