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Hamilton Heroes

Don Lawson remembers his Grade 1 teacher.

“When you walked into that teacher’s classroom she made you feel like you were the most special thing she encountered that day.”

Lawson, now the director of marketing at Big Brothers of Burlington and Hamilton-Wentworth, says that’s the effect mentors have children who go to Big Brothers.

“When a child feels liked by an adult, it really helps their self-esteem,” he says, adding that has many positive outcomes, such as children staying in school and keeping out of trouble with the law.

But since Lawson started as executive director of Big Brothers of Barrie and District in 1986, the number of volunteers getting involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters organizations across Canada has been falling.

Kids in Hamilton and Burlington wait for one to two years to be matched with a volunteer, Lawson says.

The difficulty of quickly matching kids with mentors is why Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada (BBBSC) has “focused on revitalizing the big brother, big sister movement,” Lawson says.

Digital Heroes, an e-mentoring program, being piloted in nine agencies in Ontario, is one way that BBBSC is trying to increase volunteerism.

Lawson attributes much of the decline in volunteers to more rigorous work schedules.

Digital Heroes, however, takes one hour a week of a volunteer’s time, and can be done from home or work.

In traditional matches, the pair gets together weekly for recreational activities. Digital Heroes is modeled after the traditional program, except any interaction takes place over the computer through E-mail or online chats.

Children involved in Digital Heroes receive a free computer and Internet access from AOL Canada.

The e-mentoring program is like having an electronic pen pal, says Lawson, adding that the relationship can be lasting and special.

Most people have preconceived notions of what it means to be a Big Brother or Big Sister relationship, he says.

“When people hear about BBBSC they think of the traditional program,” Lawson says. “People have boxed us into what we can do.”

The Hamilton agency has roughly eight different programs for volunteer mentors to participate in.

Digital Heroes is administered by BBBSC and Frontier College. The program is expected to expand to different parts of Canada in 2003.

Computers for the project were contributed by RBC Financial Group and CIBC and were upgraded by reBoot Canada. The Ontario’s Promise initiative was responsible for launching the project and formed the partnerships.

AOL Canada is the major sponsor of the project. Jon Hamovitch, vice-president of human resources at AOL says Digital Heroes is a true example of what can be accomplished through partnerships.

“This program brings together technology, innovation, and human spirit to benefit children and youth,” Hamovitch says. “I applaud Ontario’s Promise for their ingenuity and determination to make this program a reality.”

In Hamilton and Burlington, one of the highlights of Digital Heroes is taking children off waiting lists and putting them into e-mentoring relationships, Lawson says.

“When it takes a long time for kids to be matched, they get the message ‘I’m not good enough,'” he says. “Hopefully Digital Heroes gives us another way to say ‘You matter.'”