Fred Vitez’s outlook has changed since he got a new brother – a Big Brother who he does not see.

Fred and his Big Brother do not get together in person, they get together on the Internet, through e-mail or online chats about his favourite subject in school – science, the latest sports news and life.

The Strathroy youth already had a little brother, but he needed a bigger one so his mother put him on a waiting list with Big Brothers. Teased because he did not have a father, he was having an awful time at school and needed a friend.

“I needed a Big Brother so I could communicate with someone other than my mother and my uncle,” he says.

Fred was lucky, he only had to wait several months for his Big Brother match, thanks in part to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada’s Digital Heroes program, which links youth via the Internet to an adult mentor.

“I really enjoy having a Big Brother to talk to because there are a lot of times I can’t talk to my little brother because he gets irritated,” he says.

Currently, more than 6,000 boys and girls are on waiting lists with Big Brothers and Big Sisters agencies in Ontario. Children, particularly in rural areas or small towns, often wait for years because a local match is not available.

Digital Heroes helps overcome the problems posed by distance and geography, as well as those posed by time. Mentors need only commit to one hour a week online communication from their home or office, rather than the traditional two to three hours a week face-to-face contact.

The demands are different but the results are the same.

“We know that mentoring works and has a long-term positive impact on a child’s life,” says BBBSC executive director Mike McKnight. “Using the Internet to link up more young people with mentors allows us to serve more children and create those caring relationships.”

Having an e-mentor has made a difference in Fred, his mother Marcy Vitez says. He feels more confident and secure, and gained a more positive outlook on life.

“His behaviour has changed a great deal since getting a Big Brother,” she says. “He used to get angry and frustrated because he had no one to talk to but family. Now, he doesn’t speak negatively about things when he has a bad day at school.”

Digital Heroes is administered by BBBSC agencies and Frontier College. The children receive computers with Internet access and training on how to use them before being matched to adult volunteers. The program is expected to expand across Canada.

Computers were contributed by RBC Financial Group and CIBC and upgraded by reBOOT Canada. The Ontario’s Promise initiative launched the project and formed the partnerships.

The major sponsor of Digital Heroes is AOL Canada. John 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.”

The program not only helps youth improve relationships at school and home, but also builds familiarity with technology as well as improves literacy and analytical skills.

“Fred is working harder at school and his grades have shown an improvement,” his mother says.

“This program has greatly helped our family. E-mentoring is great for any child who needs to talk to a caring adult. I would like to send a big thank you to Big Brothers,” she says.

If you would like some e-mentoring and you are over the age of 18, feel free to contact me, Donna Kakonge, at http://www.kasamba.com/donnakakonge/