Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn and his wife, Tara, cook meals with their “Little” Grayson, 15, as their weekly routine with Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS).

Even during shelter-in-place orders, the Dunns and Grayson have cooked quesadillas, homemade pizza and garlic avocado shrimp. The difference? They now cook these meals in their separate households and share their processes via FaceTime. Troy drops off the ingredients outside Grayson’s home, and after completing their meals, they eat “together” and talk like they always have. Next time, they plan to try virtual card games.

“I think it’s the next best thing to real life, but definitely when the stay at home order goes away, nothing can compare to face-to-face,” said Troy, the Rice County sheriff.

During COVID-19, Bigs throughout the entire Southern Minnesota BBBS program have fostered creativity as they maintain the bond with their Littles from a distance. Instead of meeting in person, they check in via phone, video chat and even handwritten letters. Some Bigs drop off care packages for their Littles and others participate in the activities BBBS staff host online. Matches already participated in a scavenger hunt BBBS prepared, and this week they have the option to play bingo. An online origami tutorial is still ahead.

Apart from inspiring Bigs with new ideas to stay connected to their Littles, BBBS staff check in with families to make sure their basic needs are being met and help them sift through the multitude of resources available for food, shelter and distance learning.

Michelle Redman, executive director of BBBS of Southern Minnesota, which serves Rice, Steele, Waseca and Dodge counties, said staff reaches out to families more than ever during COVID-19. Bigs reach out too, allowing their Littles to express their feelings or simply talk about their day.

“I think the Bigs are a big comfort,” said Redman. It is a scary situation … There’s a lot of different things going on in children’s lives right now that isn’t normal … Our bigs are very good at talking positively and bringing in the sunshine.”

Pat Delehanty, an Owatonna Big, was relieved to learn BBBS mental health specialists prioritized the well being of Littles and their families during the pandemic.

Delehanty set up Zoom meetings with his Little, Jason, after BBBS announced its policy on following social distance protocols with Littles. Delehanty described Jason, 10, as “a very active, social and competitive sports person,” so they typically play basketball or soccer whenever they get together in person. During the pandemic, they’ve instead played Battleship on an app and even tried truth or dare.

Delehanty said he’s missed going out to eat and getting ice cream with Jason, so he decided to put together a care package containing ingredients to make pizza, cream soda, and books to give him something to do on a rainy day. He also plans to send Jason a printable of the BBBS logo, shaped like a heart, so they can both display their support of BBBS in their separate windows.

“Now it’s certainly even more important to stay connected to [Littles], so they can have that good, solid stability in their life,” said Delehanty. “And it gives me something to look forward to on Mondays.”

A ‘Big’ difference

The need for BBBS mentors hasn’t gone away since the coronavirus outbreak, but the process of matching up Bigs and Littles has been put on hold for the time being. Instead, Redman encourages prospective Bigs to join the waiting list and complete paperwork so the matching process can resume soon after shelter-in-place orders end. If orders continue through June, Redman said BBBS may start implementing a virtual match process.

This month, BBBS of Southern Minnesota hosts two information sessions via Zoom. The first is 5 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 22 and the second is 8:30 to 9 p.m. April 28. Attending these sessions does not automatically enroll anyone in the BBBS program but instead provides resources and answers to frequently asked questions. Access to these sessions is available online at bbbsofsouthernmn.org/infosessions.

Redman said BBBS staff typically visit local high schools in April or May to encourage current sophomores to enroll in the program as juniors in the fall. This year, Redman encourages interested sophomores to visit bbbsofsouthernmn.org/programs/school-site-mentoring to learn more about school-site mentoring.

Gabby Holland, a junior at Faribault High School, said being a Big to third-grader Colbie has been “one of the highlights of [her] year.” She was a bit nervous about how the program would continue after schools closed, but she continues to talk to Colbie on the phone once a week about his online schooling and what’s going on at home.

“It’s been a bit of an adjustment but it’s doable,” said Holland. “I’m really grateful that I’m able to continue talking with my Little.”

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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