Big Brothers and Big Sisters of East Tennessee: How to Stay Connected in a COVID-19 World

Big Brothers and Big Sisters of East Tennessee with Mayor Kincannon

We’re learning to operate our personal and work lives in very different ways in the midst of a pandemic. Each new restriction, whether offered as a suggestion or an order, requires rethinking our normal patterns. We’ve even relearned hand washing and grocery ordering. Some of us are still working on toilet paper buying skills.

But what if you operated a non-profit predicated on getting human contact to young people who need it? How do you provide a human touch and fill other needs of some of our most needy without the option of in-person contact? How do you keep everyone safe as we work through this without increasing the isolation of already isolated young people? Not to mention conduct business.

I spoke to Brent Waugh, Chief Executive Officer of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of East Tennessee, to see how they are managing. He said, “This is the fist time in the history of our organization that we are operating 100% remotely.” They are interviewing potential volunteers remotely and offering orientation to small groups via Zoom. They are encouraging mentors to keep up with their boys or girls via Facetime.

Big Brothers and Sisters of East Tennessee Volunteers

Portions of the operation have always been remote, like checking in on the matched “bigs and littles” to make sure all is going well with the match. That’s typically been done by phone. Now emphasis is on connecting the mentors with resources on topics such as how to talk about the virus. There’s also an app that allows the “big and little” to watch a movie at the same time on their separate devices, allowing them to enjoy it together and talk about it. All efforts are directed at keeping the relationship strong and reducing isolation.

As always, the organization is in need of volunteers. One piece they have not conquered yet is the initial, critical meeting between the matches. At this time they are taking volunteers and training them with the idea of pairing them when this current situation passes. If it is prolonged, they are looking at other possibilities. They hope to have a large group of volunteers for what they anticipate will be high demand at the end of the social distancing restrictions.

Another piece of match support is support to families. While this has always been a component, it is becoming even more critical as many of the young people live with grandparents or even great grandparents who are high risk. Other families may be experiencing job loss. They are often families who are “disproportionately impacted by economic downturns.” Many are requesting help with safely securing food, while rent support is a need for others. The organization is considering delivering meals and are connecting students and families with available resources.

Big and Litttle, Josh and Caleb (Photo by Jeannie Andrews)

The Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization is also providing other types of resources. A current concern in many of these families is about lost school time. The organization is responding with resources to continue learning from home while school is closed. The organization works to increase the chances of long-term success for their students.

As always, the organization needs volunteers. Maybe this is the right time for you to offer to be a mentor? You can get started at the organization’s website or feel free to email Brent directly at You’ll be helping some of those most in need.