“Have you found my big friend yet?”

That’s a question that weighs heavy on Linda McEntee’s heart. It came from a child who was hoping to join the Mitchell Area Big Friend Little Friend organization, and as the new executive director of the Mitchell-based youth mentoring program, it’s one that she’s working to ensure no children seeking a big friend will have to ask.

“That little 9-year-old broke my heart,” McEntee said in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic. “I said I’m still looking.”

In September, McEntee assumed the role of executive director of the program, which has been in operation since 2010 when it was associated with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program out of Sioux Falls. The local program became independent in 2015, becoming the Mitchell Area Big Friend Little Friend, focusing on empowering children through supportive mentoring relationships while allowing monetary donations to be used strictly for the Mitchell-area program and for more local leadership and control.

The group pairs adults with youth who are looking for constructive social interaction to help build skills and experience activities through a number of different mentoring programs, including community-based mentoring, school-based mentoring, the Mentor Moms program and South Dakota Hunting Adventures.

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Now leading the way for the organization, the Mitchell native and career educator who has worked at Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell Technical College, McEntee is looking to boost awareness and participation in the program that has made a difference in the lives of children in the Mitchell area.

There are 36 pairs of mentors and mentees meeting for quality time and activities, and another 20 on the waiting list to be paired with an adult. McEntee said the need for the program is clear based just on the number of kids looking to participate, and she hopes reaching out to the population of Mitchell will help entice more adults to consider being part of the program.

The organization is ready to make those matches, she said, it’s just a matter of finding the volunteers to take on the role of adult mentor.

“And we know there are many more out there in need of the program,” McEntee said. “We’re not in search of kids (at this time) because we don’t have the matches.”

The group is particularly interested in finding male volunteers willing to give their time, though all mentors are always in demand.

There are many ways those volunteers can enhance the lives of their mentees. With the school-based program, mentors visit the mentee’s school and meet during the day. The youth hunting program gets kids out of the house and on the trail of South Dakota game wildlife.

South Dakota Youth Hunting Adventures was created in 2008 in Rapid City. In 2018, the James River chapter of SDYHA was formed, allowing Big Friend Little Friend the opportunity to offer a unique mentoring program specifically designed for young hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s one of the newest offerings Big Friend Little Friend provides.

“They need someone who will take them outdoors and go hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing. In South Dakota, we have so many great resources, and there are a lot of kids who have never been fishing,” McEntee said. “As an organization, we can buy all the equipment, guns, ammo, tackles rods and reels and we can get them out there.”

Like the other mentoring programs offered, the hunting program seeks to educate the mentees through mentors of strong character that will serve as a role model for boys and girls who can look up to their experience and guidance. An emphasis on conservation and simple hunting courtesies are a good example of what can be learned, McEntee said.

“We want people with good skills and ethics who can teach kids who are in the program to talk to landowners and write thank you notes,” McEntee said.

The program requests a commitment of one year from its mentors, and there is a screening process to become involved, but it can be a rewarding journey for those willing to give of themselves to benefit the lives of young people who are seeking extra leadership from an adult figure.

The need for volunteers in the program is especially large with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. With emphasis placed on avoiding large social gatherings and social distancing, some programs have had to draw back on offerings that may have otherwise helped fill the void filled by Big Friend Little Friend.

And with January being National Mentoring Month, McEntee can’t think of a better time for potential volunteers to learn more about the program.

“(Now is a time) when littles are going to need a mentor,” McEntee said. “They’re stuck at home through the spring and summer when they’re home from school and they can’t get together with their friends. We have a number of mentors who are still meeting with their little friend. Some took a break because they didn’t want to get anyone sick, but we are so grateful to those who are still reaching out and still getting together on their weekly schedule.”

The program is fortunate to receive strong local support, even in uncertain economic times like these, McEntee said. She cited a $20,000 donation from the Roger Musick family as an example of the help the organization received in 2020, but regular more modest donations are encouraged from anyone who has interest in supporting the work.

Some fundraising events have been affected by the pandemic, she said, but the need for support is always there. The annual organization fundraising event, scheduled for Jan. 30 to Feb. 6 this year, will be a virtual event. It will include, among other features, a silent auction, live auction and raffles, with proceeds going directly to the program.

Even in tough times, the community sees the value of the program, McEntee said.

“It’s amazing the support we get from businesses and individuals. I’m blown away by their generosity. We can’t do it without them,” she said.

And they can’t do it without the volunteers who are willing to teach a community youngster the finer points of a pheasant hunt, the game of chess or other activities. It’s a rewarding experience for everyone involved.

“The big gets satisfaction and they learn things, too. They gain a better understanding of youth in the area. If we can invest in little people in the community today, we are investing in the community of tomorrow,” McEntee said.

Requirements to become a mentor include the following:

  • Fully complete and submit Big Friend application.

  • Provide four potential references.

  • Schedule an in-person interview.

  • Provide proof of a driver's license and auto insurance.

  • At least 18 years old.

  • Final approval for all applications is dependent on the successful completion of a criminal background check.

More information on becoming a volunteer mentor can be found at bigfriendlittlefriendmitchell.org or by calling 605-292-4444.