Big Brothers Big Sisters: Making a Big difference Little by Little

By Martha Legong [7]

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa (BBBSSA) provides volunteers to mentor and befriend vulnerable children in the provinces of Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. On 27 February 2006, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka launched a partnership between BBBSSA and the Umsobomvu Youth Fund, helping to strengthen and expand the programme.

What is Big Brothers Big Sisters?

BBBSSA is a mentorship programme for youth between the ages of six and 18 who are in need of various kinds of support. After being matched, a mentor (a 'Big') and mentee (a 'Little') build a trusting friendship. A youth in need could be a child who is struggling academically, battling with low self-esteem, abused, neglected, or infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Over a period of a year, a Big is expected to spend a minimum of one hour a week developing a one-to-one relationship with a Little.

The mentors are volunteers who come from all walks of life, representing all races, ages and genders. The Littles are referred to BBBSSA by various children’s homes, schools and communities that work in partnership with the programme.

By developing a close relationship, the mentor can help the child in various ways. These include visiting the child at the home, helping with homework, taking the Little out for activities, or by just being there for the Little – playing the part of a role model or mentor to the young person.

BBBSSA has four main programmes:

  • A school-based programme where a mentor visits during school hours on the school property.
  • A children’s home programme where a mentor visits the child at the children's home. Depending on the home’s rules, the mentor may be allowed to take the child off the property.
  • A community-based programme where a mentor will visit at the child’s home, which is based in a community.
  • A diversion programme which involves juveniles and youth who have committed less serious offences. At the moment this programme is only available in the Western Cape.

A 'Big' taking 'Littles' on a trip to Zoo Lake (Johannesburg).

Brief history

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa is affiliated to Big Brothers Big Sisters International, which was founded in 1904 to address the need of role models for young people.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa was first established in the Western Cape in 2000. From there it was extended to Gauteng in 2002 and KwaZulu-Natal in 2005. South Africa is the first African country to implement the Big Brothers Big Sisters programme.

The Gauteng team from left to right: Natalie Jackson (Operations Co-ordinator), Nadine Mason (School/Community-based Case Manager) and Lisha Stevens (Children’s Home Case Manager).


Training mentors

Mentors undergo a training process over three consecutive days during which the potential Bigs develop skills around relationship building, communication, self-esteem development, child development and sexuality. Mentors are screened and checked before being accepted on to the programme. After completing one year of mentorship, each Big and Little pair receives a certificate from Big Brothers Big Sisters.


The programme has developed partnerships with a range of organisations and institutions such as the Umsobomvu Youth Fund, the National Youth Commission, the South African Police Service as well as many others. The Department of Social Work at the University of Johannesburg and the Wits School of Education have integrated the programme into their curriculum programmes, enabling students to become Bigs.


Big Brothers Big Sisters hosts functions such as 'buddy nights' where Bigs come together to share their experiences. This is seen as a good way of attracting new volunteers. Volunteers are also recruited through newsletters, websites, flyers and by word of mouth.

Scale of the programme

The following table shows the number of active matches in South Africa:


Western Cape



Total by programme






Children’s homes




















Source: Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa Newsletter (March 2006).

The programme has a huge impact on the lives of the youth involved. An international study conducted in the United States by Public/Private Ventures [8] on the youth who were involved as Littles in the mentorship programme, showed the following results:

  • 53 per cent were more likely to stay in school
  • 32 per cent were less likely to engage in violence
  • 46 per cent were less likely to use drugs
  • Increase in self confidence and self-esteem
  • Greater ability to trust.

These results are important and demonstrate the potential that the programme could have in South Africa where there is an increasing number of children orphaned by AIDS, growing numbers of child-headed households, and many children growing up with a single parent. According to a Human Sciences Research Council study [9], it is estimated that 3 per cent of the households in South Africa are headed by children who have a great need for someone to look up to. This is where programmes like BBBSSA can be very effective.

Challenges and the future of BBBSSA

From an organisational point of view, one of the biggest challenges facing BBBSSA is the large number of children in SA who need mentoring. In addition, the organisation is faced with a second challenge – that of recruiting large numbers of volunteers to meet the needs of the children.

BBBSSA has found that the main constraints to recruiting sufficient volunteers are the following:

  • Children who participate in the programme live in poor communities that many volunteers are not familiar with. In some cases volunteers perceive these areas to be unsafe and are reluctant to go into the communities in which the children live. It is thus very important for BBBSSA to persuade people who reside in these areas to volunteer, and this means running volunteer awareness programmes in these communities.
  • There is a need to raise the awareness of the value of volunteering at grassroots level outside the affected communities as well.
  • The main challenge to making matches between mentors and children seems to lie in securing sufficient commitment from the mentors. Many Bigs are uneasy about a full year’s commitment, but the reason for this duration is to enable the programme to have an impact on the child's life. Mentoring for less than a year is unlikely to yield the same results.

Despite these challenges, Big Brothers Big Sisters recognises the value that it adds to the lives of both the mentors and the mentees, and will continue seeking partners who can help the organisation amplify its work and its impact.

Contact details for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Africa (Gauteng):
Contact person: Natalie Jackson
Tel: +27 11 482 2740

[7] Martha Legong is the Database Administrator at VOSESA.
[8] Tierney J et al (undated) Making a difference: An impact study of Big Brothers Big Sisters, accessed at
[9]  Solange Rosa, Senior Researcher at Children’s Institute (