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Big buddy program: Empowering children and changing students’ lives

It is that time of year again, where any student at Queens College can apply to become a big buddy.

The Big Buddy program is a long running service-learning program at QC with a mission to mentor, inspire and educate children who are experiencing homelessness.

As stated on its page on the QC website, the program is “Designed to foster an engaging learning and mentoring experience for Queens College students and homeless children in an equity-based, empowering, and socially just context.”

The program is headed by Dr. Karla Manning, PhD, who is also a lecturer in the elementary and early childhood education department at QC. Before she was a professor at QC, Manning was a teacher in the Chicago school system and also in South Africa. Manning’s background in working with a diverse population makes her a valuable mentor for student participants.

Every Saturday for 10 weeks, QC students serve as mentors and take a child out on weekly outings that promote social stability, academic development and cultural exposure. From 9 – 10 AM on each Saturday, there is class and the focus is on youth homelessness. Some of the topics include mentoring, research on youth on homelessness, culturally relevant teaching and service learning.

From 10 AM – 3 PM, students go on outings with their little buddy. There are three focuses in the educational curriculum for the little buddies: museum learning, urban digital storytelling and STEM experiential learning. Students help expand the cultural awareness of their little buddies by visiting museums together such as the Newark Museum, MoMA and the Lewis Latimer House museum.

Students help their little buddies develop their urban digital storytelling skills by having them take pictures every Saturday with a digital camera. The little buddies come to campus for two Saturdays and engage in a digital storytelling workshop with Dr. Manning so they can learn how to present and put together the pictures they had taken with the camera. The program also works on increasing STEM knowledge by going on trips to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, New York Hall of Science Museum,and Harriman State Park.

Dr. Manning has also created a subgroup of the Big Buddy program that is called Teen Girl Butterfly. The purpose is to provide an empowering, healing space to girls ages 10-17 experiencing homelessness, to motivate girls to be more confident in their identities, and to develop restorative literacies through personal writing, reflective thinking and sharing.

Some of the typical tasks of the Teen Girl Butterfly group include weekly meetings that promote self-love, personal reflections, yoga and wellness. The end goal for the Teen Girl Butterfly group is to increase confidence and self-efficacy for girls who are experiencing homelessness.

All QC students participating receive 50 service learning hours, 3 academic credits and paid transportation. Participants must be full-time undergraduate QC students to join and must be available on Saturdays, 9-5, for 10 weeks.

The QC Big Buddy program provides students with the opportunity to develop their professional identities as emerging, caring educators and youth workers. Sara S, a freshman education major who participated in the program, said of her experience, “You learn so much about yourself through this program. Also, especially as an education major, it’s really important to incorporate every child into the classroom and this program highlights that.”

Anna S, a sophomore majoring in communication sciences and disorders, said “It’s so important that there is a program like this offered at QC. This is giving students in the education field an invaluable experience, but they are making an even bigger impact on children’s lives.”

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