Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio relies on personal contact between its adult volunteers and children.

The close nature of those relationships has been challenged by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

To keep those bonds as close as possible, the organization launched a pen-pal program and encourages contact through online services, said Erica Strother, who is on the program's staff.

Big Sisters are paired with Little Sisters, and Big Brothers are paired with Little Brothers.

Averee Fields of Delaware has been a Big Sister for about a year and has been matched with the same 11-year-old girl during that time.

ThisWeek will not name the children in the program.

"It's been a lot harder" during the pandemic, Fields said. "We saw each other once a week or every two weeks. Now we do Facebook Messenger or video chats."

During the pandemic, the Little Sister has sent Fields videos of herself dancing, tried yoga at Fields' suggestion and received a "care" package from Fields.

At one time, Big Brothers Big Sisters operated exclusively for disadvantaged children or those in single-parent households.

Today, any child age 5 or older may participate, Strother said.

"All children can benefit from a one-to-one mentoring relationship," she said. "Any parent can sign their child up to participate."

The program uses a screening process for adult volunteers, she said.

"We have a multistep enrollment process that starts with an orientation webinar, where the potential volunteer learns more about the organization to see if the opportunity is a good fit for them, a training to learn the basics of being a mentor," Strother said. "Then they complete an application and background check and turn that information in at their interview with one of our enrollment specialists.

"If approved, the volunteer will then be presented with a potential Little that we feel can benefit from being matched with them."

Matches are either school-based, focusing on school-related activities, or community-based.

Fields' match is community-based, meaning she and her Little Sister aren't limited to school activities.

"It's rewarding to be a part of the Little person's life," Fields said. "It's a beautiful relationship that forms. They have another person on their side.

"They become like family. ... My friends know about (my Little Sister). She's part of the family now. ... Yes, it's a time commitment to introduce a new person and family into your life. But it's 100% worth it."

Amanda Maddox -- a Powell resident who grew up in Delaware -- has been in a community-based match for more than a year with a 13-year-old Little Sister.

"We have a common interest. I'm a home baker by trade, and (my Little Sister) said, 'I think I've got the perfect match.' The girl loves to bake," Maddox said.

"We did a lot of fun things together" before the pandemic, Maddox said, "such as baking cookies and preparing a meal. ... We both love animals and dogs. Sometimes we go to a pet store and play with puppies."

During the pandemic, the pair have communicated by texting, Snapchat and Facetime, Maddox said, and she's delivered some baked goods to the porch at the girl's home.

"It's definitely challenging right now," Maddox said. "We're lucky we have a good relationship ... just knowing we're there for one another. She knows and I know neither one of us are going anywhere, literally and figuratively.

"I get a lot of texts that she's bored. I tell her, 'I'm in the same boat as you; trust me. I've been staring out the window for a week now.' "

Tricia Powers of Westerville has been matched with a 9-year-old Little Sister since January.

They saw each other every other week before the pandemic, Powers said.

Among other outings, the pair went to dinner for the girl's birthday and attended a group cooking class coordinated by Big Brothers Big Sisters, she said.

The pair have held a Skype chat and communicate mostly through letters, Powers said. She sent the girl some Easter toys and a gift card for her favorite pizza shop.

"I ask how school is going and does she miss her friends. ... We talk a lot old school -- no emojis or LOLs -- writing and drawing pictures on our letters," said Powers, who added the Little Sister's mother says the girl "loves it and it's good practice for her."

The pandemic has been "a huge bummer," Powers said.

"We both love being outside and got matched in the winter," she said. "We're waiting for nice weather for hiking and biking and going to the park. It's something to look forward to after the pandemic. The girl has so much energy; she just wants to go out and play."

Information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio is online at bbbscentralohio.org/.

The Delaware County office is at 39 W. Winter St., Delaware, and the Franklin County office is at 1855 E. Dublin-Granville Road, Columbus.

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