HUDSON -- Connection is the main goal for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Northwestern Wisconsin.

The pandemic has made that more difficult, but also shown just how important this work is.

“We’re here to support young people, and we know that young people need support now more than ever and are really craving connection with other people,” St. Croix Valley program manager Alyson Sauter said.

The organization has transitioned some of its programming during COVID-19, relying more on virtual alternatives, but is still looking to support and mentor area youth. The organization needs more students, called Littles.

‘We have a quote-unquote problem, it’s a really good problem, of having a waiting list of Bigs,” Sauter said.

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Students have not been in school to the same capacity, which has lowered referrals. Many adults also don’t realize that their children qualify to be part of the program, Sauter said.

“We will serve any child who would benefit from having another positive adult in their life,” she explained.

That can be an only child, a student doing virtual learning, or more.

“We say that our Big Brothers and Big Sisters are an adult friend,” she said. “And we really mean that, so it’s someone for a child to go out and do things that maybe mom and dad can’t do because they’re working, or they have a sibling that might have higher needs or the list of reasons go on and on.”

The organization has community-based programs that match Bigs and Littles to spend time together out in the community or at home, doing activities or service projects. With the pandemic, some of these mentorships have focused on outdoor meets or switched to virtual.

School-based programming is also offered in the area, where Bigs and Littles meet up at lunch or during recess. With schools not allowing visitors during the pandemic, this has been switched to virtual as possible.

In River Falls, the Friends Program matches University of Wisconsin-River Falls students with elementary students. That program brings the kids to the college campus for activities, including the highlight of climbing the rock wall. This year those meets were held virtually as well.

“They’ve gotten really creative, like dropping off gingerbread house kits to the school the day before the meeting so that the kiddos could make their gingerbread houses on camera with their Big,” Sauter said.

Those interested in being Bigs can apply online at bbbsnw.org or attend an information session on Jan. 26.

Big Brothers, Big Sisters facilitates match introductions, working to break the ice at the start of the mentorship.

Parents or guardians can sign Littles up online as well, or anyone can refer a child to the program.

“I just hope that we can continue to expand our reach in both St. Croix and Pierce counties and help people get connected,” Sauter said. “I think sometimes Bigs come into the program thinking that they’re going to change lives and really they get just as much out of it as our Littles.”