By Josette Keelor
WINCHESTER -- Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke is partnering with the Warren Coalition and plans to expand into Warren County.
The organization should begin serving children in Warren County sometime next year, according to Executive Director Juli Ferrell.
Since 1973, the local group has paired adult volunteers with at-risk youth.
Ferrell said the organization's goal for expansion is to help lessen the risk of teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol abuse among children in Warren County, especially those living in poverty. Its goal aligns with the Warren Coalition's mission of supporting a safe, healthy and drug-free community for its youth.
Ferrell said she's had her eye on Warren County for a while, so in 2011, when the Warren Coalition contacted her with a request for services, she sought approval from the national organization.
Before earning approval, the organization needs to raise $50,000, have a three- to five-person advisory committee in Warren County, team with local business people and have a three-year business plan.
These measures will help ensure its chances of success, Ferrell said. Startup fees will be less than they would be if Warren County decided to open an independent branch of the organization. She said base operation costs to go alone would be about $325,000.
"It's a challenge, but in the end it will keep us sustainable," she said.
So far, they've raised about $5,000 from a bowling night and received a $500 donation from Warren Coalition members. Ferrell has applied for grants and plans more fundraisers this year. The coalition also expects to donate another $500 later this year.
The organization became a member of the Warren Coalition last year, a step that coalition Executive Director Christa D. Shifflett said has helped move along the process.
Shifflett said the idea of bringing Big Brothers Big Sisters to Warren County came from a group the coalition hosted to close gaps in the discussion of mental health and substance abuse treatment for children and adults.
"The group by far and away said that having a mentoring program would be a great first start," Shifflett said.
Because Warren County has a greater incidence of poverty than other area counties do, she said hundreds of elementary school children would be eligible to participate in the organization's programs.
"Education and mentorship are the keys to getting people out of poverty," she said, "so again, the match [with the organization], it makes total and perfect sense."
Children in grades two through four will be recommended to the organization's school- based mentoring program through participation in the schools' free and reduced cost lunch program. At the middle and high school levels, Ferrell said, the organization offers a community-based program.
Always in need of volunteers age 18 and older, she said men are especially needed.
"We always seem to have a lack of male volunteers in relationship to the number of boys who need a big brother," she said. "So we kind of focus largely on recruiting men."
Volunteers need to have their own mode of transportation and can expect an interview, background check, training and follow-up meetings.
Though Shenandoah County doesn't have its own Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ferrell said the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County organization draws children to its program from Shenandoah and Page counties, aided greatly by student volunteers from James Madison University.
"They're like the organization lots of us want to be," Ferrell said. "They serve probably 700 kids."
"We served 90 last year," she said. When school starts again in the fall, "We're kind of on track to hit 100 ... which has kind of been our goal, to serve 100 kids."
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org>