Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado is creating friendships — and looking for more

“If you want to be a mentor, just go for it… highly recommend. 10 stars. Two thumbs up.”
8 min. read
Tyrah Green (left) and her Big Sister mentor Adele Martin. May 31, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Adele Martin and Tyrah Green met about six years ago. The two became fast friends, hanging out every week, discussing school and social issues and just helping each other navigate life. Typical bestie behavior.

But this isn't the typical friendship. Through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, Martin became Green's mentor, or Big, when Green was 9 years old. Now Green is a rising senior at East High School, and the pair agree that their mentorship-turned-friendship has helped them grow into the people they are today.

"It's been amazing," Martin said. "Tyrah is one of the most stable forces in my life, and I absolutely adore her and I love hanging out with her and watching her grow has been... I'm like a proud mama bird. ... what she's accomplished this year has been kind of breathtaking because she's in multiple choirs, the lead of several shows. She's doing well in school, and she just blossomed into a beautiful person."

Green's mother died right around the time she was introduced to Big Brothers by her older cousin, who's currently her guardian. Green said her cousin wanted her to have a stronger support system via a mentor who could motivate her and be there in times of need.

"I've gotten so much support from Adele," Green said. "For me, it's mostly emotional support. Adele comes to my choir performance. If I need help with anything, she'll help me if she can. ... I don't think my grades would be as good. I wouldn't have as many connections as I do. And it's just nice to have someone that just wants to hang out with you and help you do better."

Tyrah Green (left) and her Big Sister mentor Adele Martin. May 31, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Martin said she's always wanted to work with Big Brothers but she never had the time or the stability. Before meeting Green, Martin lived in California working long hours in TV and film advertising, while also earning her master's in education. When she moved back to Colorado, she had the time, called up Big Brothers and was matched with Green.

And the rest is history. The pair said they meet about two to three times a month. They've made exploring Denver a "hobby" by heading to different museums, having picnics at various parks, attending cultural events such as the Lunar New Year Celebration on Federal Boulevard, and soon they're going to try hiking. Sometimes it's simple, like heading to the movies (they recently saw Everything Everywhere All at Once), shopping at the mall and even simpler, like hanging at home.

"My role is basically a mentor/friend," Martin said. "I mentioned at the beginning the stability I got from Tyra and how remarkable it is because I needed to show up on time for the things that we decided on and we did that thing for the allotted amount of time and it was my responsibility to make sure she's safe and happy. And that really matured me quite a bit. She asks me really thoughtful and insightful questions that make me reflect on myself. So in that way, I also think of her as a friend to me. I'm getting as much out of it as I am putting into it."

Green added, "Adele is like a mentor, friend and big sister wrapped in one."

And that's really the point of the program, according to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado CEO Elycia Cook.

Cook became the first Black CEO in March 2021 and has worked for nonprofits overseeing mentoring programs since 2003. She's originally from Detroit, near the neighborhood of Black Bottom, an area impacted by the Detroit riots and "urban renewal." She said it was her own experience with mentors that helped pave her pathway out of the area. She became a first generation high school and college student. She later lived in Japan for several years and eventually found herself in Colorado wanting to give back to youth, similar to her mentors.

"It was always a mentor who just helped me understand that this is not my destiny and who always introduced me to opportunities beyond what I could see," Cook said. "I always tell people that I want to be the person I needed most when I was a child. ... It was a mentor who exposed me to all these opportunities in school and in Japan. When I came back from Japan, I dabbled in a few things before deciding to work for a mentoring nonprofit, and I've never looked back."

Courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado

When Cook became CEO of the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, she had two goals in mind: expanding programing and adding more Black and brown mentors to the roster. About 35% of "Littles," or mentees, are Hispanic or Latino, 17% are Black or African American, and about 24% are white or of European descent.

Cook said the wait time between a Little signing up for the program and being matched to a "Big" -- a mentor -- could take about four months. In that span, some kids decide to move on, not getting the help they may need.

Soon, that'll no longer be the case. In April, Big Brothers announced that they will acquire the Friends First STARS peer-to-peer mentoring program.

Prior to working with Big Brothers, Cook was CEO of Friends First, a local peer-to-peer and group mentoring organization that focuses on meeting youth inside the classroom.

Peer-to-peer and group mentoring is different from what Big Brothers offers, with their one-to-one programming. At Friends First, the mentors are often closer in age. Sometimes they go to the same school, they are more diverse and meetings sometimes take place in group settings. With the acquisition, Cook said Littles can join the group sessions while waiting for a Big if they're interested. The acquisition also brings in more Black and brown representation because peer mentors are often from the same neighborhood as their mentees.

The acquisition, which will occur in August, also helps the students who are already in the Friends First program. Now, about 900 students will join Big Brothers programming. Cook said, "students on the waiting list may become a part of this program depending on the school they attend."

"With this acquisition, I hope we're able to meet the ever-growing need of our youth," Cook said. "That kids can have mentors that look like them. That kids don't have to sit on a waiting list anymore. I want to always have something for them. In positive youth development theories, there's a quote that states 'Every child needs at least one person in their life who is not a family member who is crazy about them.' And that's what we want to provide."

Courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado

Besides acquiring Friends First, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado recently received a $3.6 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the largest single contribution in BBBSC's 106-year history.

Now Cook said Big Brothers is moving forward with plans to diversify the mentor roster. They are hosting a block party on June 10 and Cook said "the goal is to have a hundred Black and brown people show up and want to learn more about mentoring."

Martin and Green said they talk about race often, through their relationship and the broader themes affecting the world. Martin is white and Green is Black.

Martin said she's constantly educating herself and looking for various ways to support Green, which Green says is enough for her.

"I definitely think that understanding how differently our lives are because of our race is really important to have in a mentor," Green said. "I'm happy with my match."

That's obvious. On a gray and rainy day, the two met for boba tea at a shop on East Colfax. They were both wearing a shade of pink.

"This was not on purpose," Martin laughed.

Tyrah Green (left) and her Big Sister mentor Adele Martin. May 31, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

As they spoke about their time together, Martin continuously praised Green, commenting on her singing and songwriting abilities. In typical teenage fashion, Green shied away from the compliments.

"When we meet new people, you always start to brag," Green told Martin.

Green did her fair share of boasting for Martin as well. Usually the Big Brother mentoring ends at 18 years old, meaning the Little is no longer in the program. Green turns 18 next year, but the pair said they don't see their friendship ending anytime soon.

"We don't have any plans on stopping past 18," Martin said. "I know with no uncertainty that this'll be a lifelong friendship. I'm looking forward to seeing her graduate next year. I just know she's meant for great things. If you want to be a mentor, just go for it. Even if it's only for a year. It's completely worth the time to change your life and someone else's for the better. Highly recommend. 10 stars. Two thumbs up."

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