- Associated Press - Sunday, April 27, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Since they were matched two years ago by Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sioux Empire, Shelley Schipper and 9-year-old Gracie have giggled, crafted, played card games and talked their way through life’s issues.

“It’s super-rewarding, and it’s just a lot of fun,” Schipper said recently before she and Gracie headed out to a video arcade. “I like being Grace’s friend, not her mom but a friend.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters, established in 1994, has more than 500 matches this year between children and adults who have volunteered to serve as mentors and friends, but it still has 58 children on a waiting list.

The organization’s Kentucky Derby Gala fundraiser on May 3 aims to raise funds to help it expand to meet that need.

“With additional funds we can reach more kids,” executive director Jami Gates said. “It will help us recruit more ‘bigs,’ and it will cover costs from background checks and insurance. The bottom line is we have to protect our ‘littles.’”

On average, it costs about $750 to make a match.

Big Brothers Big Sisters started as a Volunteer and Information Center program. As it grew, the agency, now known as the HelpLine, and others recognized that the group should have its own board and identity. Today, the organization has satellite offices in Watertown and Mitchell, with its own fundraising efforts. A Big Brothers Big Sisters agency also operates in the Black Hills.

The average Big Brother Big Sister match lasts 22 months, and while Gates can point to a nine-year friendship between a Big Brother and a Little Brother, she wants to see the retention improve.

Potential mentors must be at least 16 years old and have access to transportation. Monthly activities are planned for all matches; Gracie describes them as parties and looks forward to attending.

In the beginning, when they were learning about each other, Gracie and Schipper would plan their weekly activities carefully. As their friendship has developed, the match has discovered one of their favorite things to do is just “hang out.”

“We play a lot of cards, go to dinner at HuHot - Gracie’s absolute favorite place - go back to our house,” Schipper said. “We’re working on a tie blanket, but we’re not getting far. We worked on a volcano for her school science project, that took several weeks.”

Research shows that children with a Big Brother or Big Sister in their lives are more confident in school, have a better relationship with their families and are much less likely to skip school.

Mentors are asked to spend at least four hours a month with their match for a minimum of a year.

“It starts to show that you’re making a difference in a child’s life,” Gates said. “We need volunteers for the 58 ‘littles’ waiting, and as we reach more kids, we’ll need more volunteers.”

Schipper became a Big Sister after her three children grew up. She wanted to spend time with children and also mentor young girls.

“She was pretty shy at the beginning, and now we’re pretty good friends,” Schipper said. It’s a friendship, she said, that she expects to last for years, until “Grace gets sick of me.”

“It might happen eventually,” Gracie acknowledged, with a third-grader’s wisdom. Until then, fishing trips are planned, and there are craft projects to finish.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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