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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County struggling to recover from pandemic

Nancy Skokos, 46, of Barrhaven, recently reunited with her
Nancy Skokos, 46, of Barrhaven, recently reunited with her
Nancy Skokos, 46, of Barrhaven, recently reunited with her "Big Sister" Eileen Whitmore, 70, of Smiths Falls.
Nancy Skokos, 46, of Barrhaven, recently reunited with her "Big Sister" Eileen Whitmore, 70, of Smiths Falls.

Nancy Skokos, 46, of Barrhaven, recently reunited with her 'Big Sister' Eileen Whitmore, 70, of Smiths Falls, Ont. (Submitted by Eileen Whitmore)

Just before Christmas, Ottawa server Nancy Skokos, 46, was waiting tables when an older woman recognized her as the girl she'd mentored more than 30 years earlier.

"I literally went, 'Eileen?' and she went, 'Nancy?'" said Skokos. "It was very heartwarming. Memories flooded back and it was almost like no time had passed."

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County paired Skokos — then an adolescent daughter of a single working mom — with volunteer Eileen Whitmore back in the mid-1990s.

When Whitmore and her husband realized they couldn't have children, they had both began volunteering with the organization in the county west of Ottawa.

Whitmore would have Skokos over for dinner, play Super Mario Bros. together and go on day trips.

Nancy Skokos and Eileen Whitmore often shared meals together in the 1990s when they were paired up through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County.
Nancy Skokos and Eileen Whitmore often shared meals together in the 1990s when they were paired up through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County.

Skokos and Whitmore often shared meals together in the 1990s when they were paired through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County. (Submitted by Eileen Whitmore)

These pairings, once the cornerstone of the 50-year-old organization, are now just a small piece of its work.

It now includes after-school programs across the region, running a youth centre that offers hot meals and providing kids access to social workers.

Organization facing financial struggles

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County is struggling financially, said executive director Jennifer Miller.

Before the pandemic, the organization served 800 young people with a staff of 18. Today that number is down to 400 clients and six permanent employees, said Miller.

"We just tell the families we're doing the best we can and if there's another agency we can refer them for additional support, we do that," she said.

The revenue from fundraising, municipal grants and the organization's two thrift stores make up its $500,000 annual budget. The organization is currently running its annual bowling fundraiser, which accounts for 20 per cent of its budget.

During the pandemic, some of that revenue dried up.

"The economy was … not working at full capacity and so donations were limited," Miller said.

Plus, the thrift stores were shut for weeks at a time thanks to lockdowns. The organization has been working to build its coffers back up ever since, she said.

"We don't get any reliable government funding," Miller said, explaining that they start from scratch every January. "We need sustainable dollars or we won't be here for another 50 years."

Jennifer Miller is the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County.
Jennifer Miller is the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County.

Jennifer Miller is the executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lanark County. (Submitted by Big Brothers Big Sisters)

It's why stories like the reunion of Skokos and Whitmore are so important for Miller.

"It's a wonderful story because it goes back so far," she said. "We don't hear those stories every day but we do hear stories every day [about] the impact our volunteers have on the kids, and that's pretty powerful stuff.

"That's what keeps you going on Jan. 1 when you're starting at zero, that you know the work that you're doing is so powerful."