Founded in 1904, Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of America helps youth reach their full potential by pairing them up with adult volunteers, also known as “Bigs.” Through these mentor relationships, participating youth have an increased likelihood of educational success, higher aspirations, greater confidence, and avoiding risky behaviors.
In addition to its traditional one-on-one mentoring programs, BBBS operates several core programs designed with a specific population in mind. Its Bigs in Blue program, for instance, pairs youth with police officers. Meanwhile, one of the flagship programs of BBBS of San Diego County is Operation Bigs, through which volunteers can mentor children of military families.
1. Its the first of its kind
Not only is the military lifestyle challenging for active-duty members, but it can be particularly hard on their children, who may have to experience frequent relocations and school transitions. Other challenges include increased responsibilities, a sense of loss regarding deployed parents, physical and psychological stress, and separation from extended family. These reasons are the impetus behind BBBS of San Diego County’s first-ever one-on-one mentor program for children of military families, Operation Bigs.
To ensure that mentors understand the issues these children are facing, all “Bigs” must either be active or retired from military duty or serve in a civilian capacity. Operation Bigs is offered both as a site- and community-based program.
For its site-based program, Bigs and Littles meet once per week to discuss life and personal issues, play games, or read together. This is offered at four different elementary schools at Camp Pendleton and four off-base schools: Silver Strand Elementary, Dewey Elementary, Miller Elementary, and Hancock Elementary.
2. It plays an important role in San Diego County
While Operation Bigs is now a core BBBS program that has spread throughout the US, it is particularly beneficial to San Diego County, which boasts the world’s largest concentration of military activity. In addition to 137,000 active duty personnel residing in the area, the county is also home to 230,000 veterans.
Moreover, nearly 38,000 Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans reside in the region. This accounts for around 9 percent of all recently discharged veterans.
In addition, San Diego Bay is the home site of the US Pacific Fleet, and Navy SEALs are required to undergo initial training in Coronado. Nearly 25 percent of all Marine Corps members are stationed in the area. Speaking to the need for the program, nearly 1,800 children of Navy and Marine Corps personnel have participated in Operation Bigs since its launch 15 years ago.
3. It is supported by the community
The Operation Bigs program began with a request for mentor support to BBBS of San Diego County from Camp Pendleton and, soon after, the Jack in the Box Foundation became a major sponsor, and still is.
Accredited by The Patriots Initiative, Operation Bigs has received additional funding from community partners like the Arrington Family, Sycuan Casino, the Nice Guys, and the T. Boone Pickens Foundation, among others. These donors have enabled the program to expand from one school and 36 children in 2004 to eight sites serving more than 150 children in San Diego County.
4. Its longtime fundraiser is Phil’s BBQ
One of the more prominent longtime supporters of Operation Bigs is Phil’s BBQ. The award-winning restaurant chain and catering company has hosted an annual fund-raiser, Phil’s Big BBQ at the Ballpark, in support of the program for more than a decade. Its most recent event, held on July 14, 2019, generated more than $112,200 for the program. Nearly 3,000 attended the event, some of whom were even inspired to volunteer as a Big. More than 100 Phil’s BBQ employees volunteered to cook chicken and ribs, while other major sponsors like the San Diego Padres, Richard & Richard Construction, and Navy Federal Credit Union helped to make the event possible.
“We are incredibly grateful for the generosity of Phil’s BBQ, the Padres and all our event sponsors for providing such a fun event to raise money for the youth in our Operation Bigs program,” noted BBBS of San Diego County president and CEO Lorie Zapf. “In addition to donating 100 percent of the ticket proceeds, hundreds of volunteer ‘Bigs’ and their ‘Littles’ were able to attend at no cost, being treated to a BBQ lunch, game ticket, fun zone, root beer floats, and live entertainment.”
5. It has expanded throughout the United States
Due in part to the success of Operation Bigs in San Diego County, the program has since expanded to more than 30 sites throughout the US to serve the estimated 1.9 million children of military parents in the country. According to the Department of Defense, roughly 225,000 of those children have at least one parent deployed. Other chapters that have initiated the program include BBBS Hampton Roads in Norfolk, Virginia, and BBBS of Central Texas.
For more information or to volunteer as a mentor with the BBBS of San Diego County’s Operation Bigs program, email OpBigs@SDBigs.org.