The Big Sister Movement
ETHEL M. CHAPMAN
A PUBLIC Health Nurse ’phoned the office of the Big Sisters’ Association.
“I have just left a home,” she said, "where the mother died this morning leaving a little fourteen-year-old girl, and a husband who is the girl’s step-father. The step-father doesn’t want her, and the girl doesn’t want to stay with him.
I thought you’d want to know about it.”
The Big Sisters did want to know about it. That afternoon they called at the house and interviewed the father, persuading him to give Bessie her share of her mother’s estate which amounted to some fifty dollars. This they put in the bank for her.
The same day they took her to the home of a Big Sister, not to be adopted, nor to be a maid in the household, nor yet to be spoiled by an indulgent charity which demanded nothing of herself. She does some chores around the house, waits on the family table at dinner and eats by herself in the kitchen, but she often goes with the family to a picture show afterwards, and she goes to school or to skate with the daughter of the house. Her uncle sends her some money from England so she is not entirely dependent. She is going to school and will soon be ready to earn her own living. In the meantime she is being taken care of. Several serious things might have happened if she had been left without a friend after her mother died.
This isn’t a typical case; there are few typical cases in the work of the Big Sisters. Every day seems to bring something new; they are always meeting emergencies. But there are certain definite objects and principles in the organization.
The movement originated some years ago with E. J. Coulter, Superintendent of the Society for the Prevention of ! Cruelty to Children in New York City. Mr. Coulter felt responsible for a great deal of follow-up work with the children who passed through the Juvenile Court, and it occurred to him that it would facilitate matters greatly if some of the business men of the city who had a sympathetic interest in boys, would share this responsibility with him by sort of being big brothers to the youngsters. Sometimes a man was able to find a boy a job in his own office or somewhere else, always he could keep in touch with him, see him at least once a week, take him to his home, and make himself a friend in innumerable other ways. The boys were
not all cases from court, though some of the best of them may have been, and the arrangement frequently worked out tothe mutual benefit of both the big and little brother. Anyway it became very populei in the city and was soon followed by the Big Sister Movement. Seven year» ago the first Big Sisters’ Association i> Canada was organized in Toront# through the Local Council of Women After two years it became independent and has been operating on its own initi ative ever since Considering what this one organizados is doing it would seem that no town large enough ts have fifty or mor» ’teen age girls among its population coule afford to be without a Big Sisters’ Assoi.i ation, even if the big sisters were the girt own mothers. For the work of the so dety is not by anj means just “rescue' work, nor work with girls who cora» through the Juvenile Court, though they do take care of them too. It is a general girl - welfare movement —an effort t< help every girl to the happiest, most useful future possible.
OF course an important branch oí th» work is carried on for the underprivileged girls. The society hears of the»» through neighborhood workers, teachers, social service workers; sometimes a parent will come to the office and say: "I*» worried about Mary. She isn’t a bad girl, mind you, but she’s got going out witk a crowd I don’t like and I’m afraid for het Could you do anything?” Best of all sometimes the girl comes herself with trouble of one kind or another. Someone has told her that she can safely confide tithe Big Sisters, and they never disappoint her. This is why the woman at the head of things in the office must be especially qualified; she is likely to have some Hit ficult problems to meet. In the one *<> ciety so far organized in Canada they ha v# been especially fortunate in this respe--: The secretary, Mrs. Laughton, is your.* enough to appreciate a girl’s problems attractive, approachable, sympathetic, and by profession a barrister-at-law, with th* clearness of a legal mind to work out tbr best solution of a difficulty, or to fight the child’s case through if necessary She always attends the Juvenile Court when any girl ease comes up. In addition to this the association is interesting itself in anything in the child welfare line whieb has a legal aspect. They do not onlj
want better laws for girls; they want the better enforcement of the laws we have.
When the society has heard of a girl teeding a friend, they send one of their »pecial workers to get in touch with her. Only fully qualified social service workers ire allowed to try to do this. One tactless move might ruin every chance of winning the girl’s confidence. The worker’s •nly hope lies in making a friend of the girl and of her mother—unless the home eonditions are impossibly bad, which is aot often the case. The most common difficulty is that for some reason or other the girl is considered “wild,” that she “stays out at night till all hours, and the family can do nothing with her.” If this is all that is wrong the natural remedy is to put her in touch with people and places where she can have a better time in the evenings under wholesome conditions— »nd the association specializes in this line,
»s is explained later. Anyway, it is the worker’s duty to find out just what the specific trouble is, and to get it straightened out. When things seem to be runaing smoothly the case is handed over to a voluntary worker to follow up. This is lone, of course, in such a way that the girl never suspects that anyone is trying to save or uplift her—that would mean iisaster to the whole scheme. If she does ánd it C' t ten years later, she will prob»bly invite the social service worker to tea In her own comfortable home and they will laugh about it together, and then she will become serious because she knows now mat how real the danger was—and she will probably ask if she can’t enroll as a Big Sister herself. After all there isn’t «ny great difference between any two of us.
Whan a voluntary worker, that is any woman who would be a worth-while friend to a girl, joins the Big Sisters’ Association, she is assigned one girl to look after. She is supposed to see the girl weekly, which she usually arranges by having her »orne to her home, taking her out in her or, or entertaining her in some way.
If the girl’s own home environment is not ill that could be desired of it, it will be worth more than anything else to her to »ave an opportunity of feeling the atmosphere of a real home. It needn't be a luxurious home—perhaps it is better if it !» not—but the tone should be the very dnest. More than anything else, however, 'he Big Sister must become the girl’s «onfidant and friend, and if anything important comes up she will report to the «¡itral office. The need of voluntary workers here is great; there are not nearly « many Big Sisters in the city as there are girls needing them, but the society wants only sincere workers, who will undertake the work conscientiously and keep it up. The women who take it up as a fad, and »•ave it perhaps when a girl needs them wrwt. do the cause more harm than good.
V ND just what can the association do for • a girl? To begin with the very practical « can find her a job. The secretary says they have never yet been unable to find work for a girl—and in this they always look after the girl’s interests before the employer’s. If they find a girl a position u house-worker, and any dispute over wages arises, the association always condders itself counsel for the girl rather than the mistress, though, of course, their lodgment must be fair and honest. They can usually find clothes for a girl in destitute circumstances—they have no systematic way of doing this, but as was mentioned before, they specialize in meeting emergencies and they usually know of tome well-to-do home where they can get a coat or a dress. Women’s organizations »re casually reminded that if they ever care to buy a bolt of flannelette and make it up into underwear the association could place it to advantage in homes where there are children to fit practically every size from fourteen years down.
If a girl is dependent, without funds and ill, the association can take care of her medically by taking advantage of the hospital free clinics. For instance one girl who came to them in a very rundown condition was given a six weeks’ rest cure in the Women’s College Hospital at no expense to herself. A girl who needs legal protection will find a fast friend in the «cretary; it is rumored that Mrs. Laughton takes a special pleasure in getting after adults who harm or deal unfairly with I hildren. And not the least of the things they do for a girl is to try to create in her an ambition for education. At first their efforts in this line consisted in encouraging the girls to go to school as long as they
could. Then a case came up which made it seem necessary to go farther than this. A very bright girl was attending the High School of Commerce. Conditions arose in the family which made it necessary for her to lèave school for the want of money to finish the course. It was then that the Big Sisters started a scholarship fund. With its help this girl is completing her course and they hope to be able to give the same help to many others.
PERHAPS the greatest single achievement of the Big Sisters’ Association, however, is its Girls’ Club—rather we might almost consider it an achievement of the girls themselves. “For,” explained the young woman in charge, “we have passed the stage of doing anything for the girls; the girls have even passed the point where they think of doing anything for themselves; they want, now, only to do things for other people.” Which explanation showed two important facts; first, that the director of the club has the spirit of social service and the secret of leadership; she led by keeping in the background and causing other people to assume responsibility, and she helped people by making them help themselves and others; and second, that fhe girls by their passing over doing things for themselves to do something for other people had given their club a dignity and status equal to the best women’s club in the country.
They have a membership fee of twentyfive cents a month, which, with the aid of a concert, should amount to about five hundred dollars for the whole year. Of this they plan to donate one hundred dollars to some kind of social service work; fifty dollars is to be set aside as a loan for any girl in serious need, as in the case of a girl coming out of the hospital; two'hundred dollars is to go towards a summer camp; fifty is to be used for parties; and one hundred is to be spent in equipment for the club—one of the things they want this year is a silver tea-urn because they entertain their friends here at Sunday afternoon tea.
The club house is a large, substantial old residence with hardwood floors and fireplaces in five rooms; at the back there is a tennis court in summer and a skating rink in winter. Since the Big Sisters took it over it has been mostattractively decorated and furnished, simply enough, of course, but with rather a luxurious touch in the way of Oriental patterned rugs, and solid oak and leather, and rattan and chintz. There is a quality in everything that gives a dignity and tone to the place.
What the club life means to the girls can be appreciated only by actually seeing them enjoy it, but the weekly programme as outlined by the superintendent. Miss Hodgkins, gives some idea.
“The club rooms are open every evening,” she said, “but we try not to make the place institutional by having a rigid programme. We want it to be a place
where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do; still there are so many things we want to do that we have to have some definite time for them. On Monday evenings a teacher of expression is teaching the girls a play; they will give this later in the year to raise funds for their work. On Tuesday evening we have a dancing class; this is only for the girls who haven’t learned to dance. Later in the evening all the girls may use the floor. Wednesday is gymnasium night. We are working up a basket-ball team and the girls are most enthusiastic. Thursday is an odd night, kept for rehearsals, parties, etc. On Friday we have a social dance to which the girls may bring their boy friends They dance from eight to eleven and yo» would not find more proper dancing anywhere in the city. Saturday is a quiet evening, but we have them all back again on Sunday. I think this is perhaps our most worth-while day of all. A number of our girls live in rooms and go out for their meals and there are very few tea-rooms open on Sunday. So we have Sunday afternoon tea, to which they can again invite their men friends. A number of boys who have been here before ’phone on their own account to ask if they may come. Sometimes we have about a hundred altogether. About seven o’clock most of them go off to church, but after church they flock back again. Usually we have singing; we don’t sing hymns altogether, but we don’t sing anything hilarious, and from nine-thirty to ten we have s story-hour, reading a chapter or two frons some book, which is interesting enough to bring them back eager for more the next week. We have just finished Joseph Lincoln’s ‘Woman Haters.’ At first tne men didn’t want a story hour—I suppose it seemed absolutely kiddish; now we usually have more men than girls, and they are excellent listeners.”
Oh, and there’s another thing that must be mentioned! On a sunny side of the house, upstairs, is a little bedroom which they call an “emergency room.” The Big Sisters have not forgotten that while the hospital is open for cases of real illness, a girl without a home might be up against a serious problem if she should be discharged from a hospital with no place to go and not quite strong enough to tramp the streets hunting a place. She would always be taken in at the Girls’ Club.
So it would seem, as we said before, considering the limitless scope of the work, that the Big Sisters’ Movement might well be extended in Canada. A conference of all the Big Sisters’ and Big Brothers' Associations on the continent will be held in Toronto in June. Even if your town doesn’t need such a thing it would be worth while to attend the conference and learn more about it. It is about certain, too, that any church or any women’s organization sending its representative could not fail to gather some inspiration for plans to be worked out through its own channels.