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South Elementary School

South Elementary School in Laurel participates in a mentoring program in cooperation with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County. Funding concerns are threatening the longstanding program. Pictured Sept. 22, 2017.

A Laurel school mentoring program that in past years has served upwards of 80 children may be eliminated at the end of the current school year because the district lacks $15,000 to fund it.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County has placed a Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) worker this school year to work with the 40 or so Laurel students involved. “Bigs,” or students at Laurel High School, are paired with “Littles” who attend one of Laurel’s three elementary schools or Laurel Middle School. Mentors spend time with their mentees twice a week, said Laurel High School counselor Brent Edgmond.

“We are a delivery system for a great program,” he said. “Kids who were Littles are now Bigs. We teach them every day to pay it forward, and I can’t think of any other program that holds truer to that statement.”

State funding cutbacks and tax protests could eliminate the program, said Linda Filpula, Laurel superintendent. As the then-principal of Laurel Middle School, Filpula helped launch the program years ago.

“It has helped build community in our school system,” Filpula said. “I think the Bigs benefit just as much as the Littles.”

Bigs are given high school credit for working with their Littles. Edgmond said Bigs are trained for about two weeks at the start of the school year. Most Bigs have two Littles, and they spend an hour or more with each every week. On Wednesdays, Bigs meet with their own mentor, the VISTA, “to brainstorm ideas, answer questions about situations that arise and reflect on what is working well,” he said.

“It provides real-life experience for Bigs and Littles alike,” Edgmond said. “A lot of times, teens are caught up in themselves, but this shifts their focus. They realize they have problem-solving skills and can talk about emotions and problems. They develop really great interpersonal skills.”

In an email, Regina Griemsman, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County, said her agency doesn’t charge fees for service and must rely on donations, grants and special events “to keep our doors open.”

The agency focuses “on those children who are not currently involved in any form of intervention, but could use the extra support of another person such as a big sister or big brother,” she wrote.

“I would hate to see it go,” Filpula said. “You can’t just put a younger kid and an older kid together and tell them, ‘Just hang out.’ (Trainers) talk to the Bigs about what their responsibility is and when they need to let an adult know,” such as if a child is going hungry.

At $15,000 per year, “it’s a very cost-effective program," Filpula said. "Unfortunately, our district just doesn’t have the money.”

With cutbacks in state support and the specter of ongoing tax protests, Laurel High School begins the current budget-building season $300,000 in the hole, she said.

“Saving the program will take just one thing — money,” she said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring programs are active in Billings schools as well, although the Laurel program is the largest.

Donations to help keep the program going can be made to Big Brothers Big Sisters, 3203 Third Ave. North, Suite 301, Billings, MT 59101. Online donations can be made by visiting www.bbbsyc.org/donate.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.