Crusaders Make A Big Difference As Big Brothers And Sisters

By Carly Grimaudo
Special to

The life of a Holy Cross student-athlete is without question a busy one. With schedules primarily committed to athletics and academics, each hour of an athlete’s time is precious. Also precious, are the lives of millions of underprivileged children across the country, and more specifically, those right here in Worcester, just outside the iron gates of Holy Cross’ beautiful campus atop Mount St. James. This is why despite their schedules, filled with hours of practices, games, training and of course studying, Holy Cross athletes from various teams have joined forces with the mentoring program of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Mass., to dedicate at least one hour each week towards making a difference in children’s lives. Currently, with teams including football, field hockey, women’s soccer, volleyball, baseball, track and field and men’s lacrosse, Crusader athletics have made a huge impact, immensely benefitting the program and all the children involved.

Sadly, the story of how Holy Cross athletics first immersed itself into Big Brothers Big Sisters comes from the unfortunate and tragic passing of lacrosse player, John Price after a train accident in 2000. Price was a junior and religious studies major who was named a lacrosse captain shortly before his death. Leaving behind family, friends and his team, Price also left his special desire and dedication to help the underserved children of Worcester as a Big Brother in the Big Brother Big Sister mentoring program. This heartbreaking loss, and the character of their late teammate inspired the men’s lacrosse team, and then coach Mike McCaffrey, to continue in Price’s footsteps toward bettering the lives of children in the Worcester community. As a result, the program known as John’s Brothers was born.

Founded in Price’s honor, John’s Brothers teamed up with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Mass., and the entire men’s lacrosse team began to volunteer as Big Brothers, by mentoring a child one-on-one each week. Since this tragedy, over 10 years have passed and over 1,400 children of Worcester have been served thanks to Holy Cross Athletics’ growing commitment to the program. What began as John’s Brothers in the Fall of 2000 with the Holy Cross men’s lacrosse team, has grown to include six other Holy Cross athletic teams, as well as athletes from various neighboring institutions like WPI, Clark, Assumption, Nichols and Becker. As a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Mass., members of football, field hockey, women’s soccer, volleyball, baseball, track and field and men’s lacrosse act as mentors to a Little Brother or a Little Sister who they are matched with through the program.

While Holy Cross students and athletes also get involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters individually through programs such as SPUD, there is something very special about a team’s group commitment to the program. Vice President of Programs, Melanie Perreault, and Interview/Match Support Specialist Junior Belisea both strongly agree. Perreault, who was first a part of the program as both an intern and a Big Sister in 2000 while enrolled in Framingham State, notes that having an entire team active in the program can help both the team and Big Brothers Big Sisters. “It encourages team bonding, gets the team off campus together and the kids really look up to the athletes. For Big Brothers Big Sisters it is an easy way to recruit and it is nice to work with a team and be supported by a coach,” said Perreault. Belisea, who recently joined the program in August 2012, added “Teams create a sense of community at the sites...There is also a greater sense of accountability, as team members help each other be more reliable to the program.” 

Team involvement is not only a great asset because of the qualities it offers Big Brothers Big Sisters, but because of the ways Holy Cross athletic teams have helped shape and enhance the program. As already mentioned by Perreault, Holy Cross athletic teams have tremendously helped draw in and recruit more volunteers. The connection between Big Brothers Big Sisters and Holy Cross sports teams have significantly increased the number of children served in the community. In 2000, the same year John’s Brothers began, the program served 150 children, in 2007 it served 650 and last year in 2012, over 1,400.

One difficult issue for Big Brothers Big Sisters that Holy Cross athletic teams help curb at the Central Mass. sites is the lack of male volunteers. “For most Big Brother Big Sister programs nationwide, it is hard to get male volunteers so the fact that we have so many athletes involved really helps keep the wait list down and match more boys who usually can wait up to two years for a Big,” said Perreault. She builds on this key point stating, “So many of our boys lack male involvement in their life so having a male in college support them goes a long way.”

The relationship between Crusader athletics and Big Brothers Big Sisters further enhances the program by facilitating event planning. Each year, the Littles of the program attend the respective athletic games of their Bigs in addition to an annual field day where all attend to celebrate the program and conclude the year every May. As Belisea mentioned, “Our relationship gives us more access to the Holy Cross campus for events and sports games. Several of our Littles cannot afford to go to a game, or their parents do not have the transportation to take them to one. It’s a big deal for them and a meaningful experience.” He added, “The Littles are able to watch their Bigs play and it makes them proud, excited and happy!” Events such as athletic games and the field day are also a key way for Littles to visit the college and as Perreault says, “see a good college in their backyard which most kids don’t realize is there.”

While it’s evident teams substantially contribute to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of Central Mass., and the Littles who are a part of it, Holy Cross Athletics help the program at the more personal, individual level too. A one-on-one relationship with a college student is life changing enough for these underserved children who belong to the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program; when a mentor is both a college student and an athlete however, the dynamic between Bigs and Littles can benefit even more. Through their daily lives, Crusaders of all teams, learn essential values such as commitment, time management, leadership and teamwork just to name a few. Such qualities put to use on the field, track or court can also be incorporated outside athletics in areas like the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program.

Being an athlete also facilitates an initial connection between Bigs and Littles because of commonly shared interests in sports, especially for boys. “Kids love sports and they are able to engage with their Bigs on the topic,” mentioned Belisea. “Additionally, these Bigs are very well-rounded...Our Littles can look up to the determination and hard work of these Bigs and aspire to these high levels of achievement.” Furthermore, Belisea reflected on how having an athlete as a Big reveals sports as an avenue for future academic attainment to the Littles that they previously never imagined as a possibility. A Big who is a student-athlete acts as an ideal role model and proves to the Littles that they not only can achieve anything they set their mind to, but that they should aim high in their future goals.

There is no doubt that program employees like Perreault and Belisea value the work and effort Crusaders have brought to Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program throughout the 10 plus years Holy Cross athletics have been actively volunteering. Recent graduates and current Crusaders too, greatly cherish the opportunity they have to positively impact a less fortunate child’s life and act as a support system from the time they first meet their Little, throughout their college years and sometimes even beyond.

Athletes from all seven teams, that actively volunteer together, mutually agree that the experience of being a Big is a special one. Football senior Philip Gough (Hinsdale, Ill.), field hockey senior Jillian Caffrey (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.), women’s soccer senior Alyssa Heiser (Bristol, Conn.), 2013 volleyball graduate Elizabeth Watters (San Francisco, Calif.), 2013 baseball graduate Josh Olson (Woodbury, Minn.), 2013 track and field graduate Melanie Forte (Milford, N.H.) and men’s lacrosse junior Terry McKenna (Summit, N.J.) all act as the coordinator and the contact between the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and their team. Through their important role and involvement these seven Crusaders have developed a love for the program and all those who are a part of it.

With a jam-packed schedule, taking the time to get away from campus, sports and academics, for the hour or so each week these athletes spend time with their Littles, is quite enjoyable. “Meeting with my Little Sister is almost a relief from the normal chaos of both field hockey and academics because I get to be a kid even though me being there is serving such a greater purpose,” said Caffrey. These athletes realize the importance of being committed to their Littles and acting as the dependable figures that are often lacking in their lives. To McKenna, being a Big means being devoted. He said, “Depending on your Little, you might need to play a different role. Some need a friend, others need a parental figure. Many of them have different holes in their lives that need to be filled. I think the most important thing is to be reliable so they can trust you.” Gough shares a similar opinion and said, “Being a Big is really about being a committed and dependable role model for a younger kid.”

Once a Big has their Little’s trust, their relationship begins to grow into a lasting friendship. At the Boys and Girls Club sites and the schools where Bigs meet their Littles once a week, they engage in a variety of activities including arts and crafts, board games, playing outside and doing homework. A crucial compliment to these activities are the conversations between the pair. All seven athletes note that at first, their Littles were shy and reserved but, after years together they’ve become open and very comfortable around their Bigs. The athletes reveal how their Littles now are able to discuss personal details of their life with the Bigs ranging from girls/boys to friends, school and their families. Forte said, “When my Little confides in me I feel very rewarded because I know how hard it can be to open up and trust someone, especially someone dissimilar.”

These conversations, no matter what they are about, are so important for the Littles because they build their confidence and help them establish a sense of self-worth. Olson recalls how his interactions with his Little have resulted in his excelled performance in school. “My Little is an avid writer. I always encouraged him to share his stories with me. Recently his teacher shared with me that he had completed a short story and that it was really great work.” McKenna has not only built his Little’s confidence but boosted the self-esteem of another Little this past field day when his was absent. “After playing with him and talking with him, I realized I was probably one of the only people to compliment him before. He kept telling me he wasn’t good at different games but when we would play them, he was actually quite good. He was really surprised and excited to hear that he was talented at these things,” McKenna said. Interactions like these highlight how Big-Little relationships can help Littles reach their potential, believe in their abilities and take pride in themselves.

It is clear that Bigs have a huge impact on the lives of their Littles, but Littles too very often change the lives of their Bigs. Throughout their experiences with the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, several of these athletes admitted that their involvement has kept them grounded and thankful for their privileged beginnings. Additionally, many of their Littles have taught their Bigs valuable life lessons. Watters expressed, “I would say my Little has changed my life more than I changed hers! I have grown in more ways than one since meeting her. She has taught me to try new things, dance constantly and make sure to find purpose in everything that I do. The memories we share together have truly defined my Holy Cross experience.” Heiser too feels that her experiences as a mentor changed her life and her perspective on friendship. She said, “What makes this program incredible is its ability to make a lasting impact on both the Little and the Big involved. My Little Sister has taught me that there is no formula to building a friendship; it is about just being yourself and letting others in.”

The maturity the Bigs have reached and the moral they have learned throughout their time with Big Brothers Big Sisters will carry over into their future endeavors following their time at Holy Cross. In fact, Forte tells how her time with her Little and the program will aid her in her job next year teaching middle school children for the Teach For America Corps. “Being a mentor for my Little Sister showed me that to earn the respect of middle schoolers, you have to show them you are authentic and that you are a mentor to them solely for the reason that you genuinely care about them,” she said.

The symbiotic relationship between the Bigs and Littles of Big Brothers Big Sisters evidently has a great positive impact on the lives of both the mentors and the children, especially when the Big is an athlete. While the program provides numerous experiences, the most commonly shared favorite expressed by these seven Crusaders is seeing the smiling faces of their Littles brighten up each week when they arrive at their site. The simple joy of the Littles remind Bigs how appreciative the Littles are of their efforts and how truly special the Big Brothers Big Sister mentoring program is. As Heiser concluded, “Knowing that I am making a difference in a child’s life by simply being a friend and a mentor is beyond words. It’s like being an older sibling; you’re there to be a role model, a protective shield and an advocate for their ambitions and aspirations.”