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Longtime educator moves into role with Big Brothers Big Sisters

Christopher Little / Hattiesburg American —Angie Sides started in November as program specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters for the Pine Belt.

Christopher Little / Hattiesburg American —Angie Sides started in November as program specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters for the Pine Belt

The following story was written by Haskel Burns and originally published in The Hattiesburg American.  It was run as a special in The Prentiss Headlight.

Angie Sides is no stranger to working with and helping children.

In fact, she’s spent most of her life doing just that, having recently retired from a 28-year career as a special education teacher in the Hattiesburg- and Petal-area school systems.

So it’s no surprise that in November, she was chosen as the Hattiesburg-area program specialist for the Pine Belt Big Brothers Big Sisters. The organization’s goal is to help all children reach their potential through professionally-supported, one-to-one relationships with volunteer mentors.

Sides takes over the position from Joy Davis, who accepted a job with Southeast Rural Health Initiative in 2010.

“When I taught at Hattiesburg, I actually had several of my students that were matched with a mentor, so that was how I found out about the program,” Sides said. “It’s something I always wanted to do, really, because I just have a love of working with kids. When I had the opportunity to do this, I jumped at it.”

The mission of the program — which is aimed at children from 6 to 18 years old — is to provide young people facing adversity with a positive experience or relationship that they might not have had otherwise.

A mentoring program can be either community-based or site-based. In site-based programs, the mentor spends time with the child at school, while in community-based programs the mentor treats the child to a movie or perhaps a nice meal at a restaurant.

Site-based programs usually require the mentor to spend at least one hour a week with the child, while community-based programs require about four to six hours of the mentor’s time every week. Each mentor must undergo an application process and a thorough background check, as well as be approved by the child’s parents before being placed in the program.

“We interview the mentor personally, we interview the parents personally, we interview the child personally,” Sides said. “We want to make sure it’s a good situation and a good match.

“We also try to match personalities to situations. For instance, there might be a mentor that has grown up in a divorced home, and if the child is also going through something like that, then both parties can relate to that situation.”

Since starting her new position, Sides already has matched 15 children with mentors and wants to have that total up to 100 by September. Shaun Hollywood, a Southern Miss freshman who mentors a Hattiesburg child, said that goal is attainable with Sides at the helm.

“She’s an awesome fit (for the organization) in my opinion because she’s really outgoing,” he said. “She’s really involved and she dedicates herself to it. She’s always checking in with us, wanting to hear more about our experiences, and … she even reaches out to other programs to see what tips or help they can offer us.”

Attributes like those were a big part of why Sides was chosen for the position, according to Petal-area program specialist Nancy Hullum.

“She rose to the top of the list,” she said. “With her teaching background, she has experience with not only children but parents as well. She knows the school system, and people in the system know her face and she has instant credibility. People know she’s going to do what she says she’s going to do.”

Because the program specialist position had been vacant for more than two years, Sides had her work cut out for her when she took over the program, but Hullum said that didn’t slow Sides down in the least.

“With (the position being vacant for so long), you lose all your matches, and you also have to rebuild that trust with teachers and principals,” Hullum said. “She’s having to rebuild the Hattiesburg program, but she’s done all the right things from the beginning — making contacts, going to see people, getting her name out there and just letting everyone know that we’re back and here to stay.”

Sides’ next step is to attract more mentors. To do that, the organization will host events such as Bowl for Kids’ Sake, a fundraiser that will be held in April at Hub Lanes in Hattiesburg.

Currently, there are 700-800 mentor/child pairings in Mississippi, and Sides hopes to help build that number up to about 1,000 within the next couple years. That would certainly have a huge impact on the state’s children — according to numbers provided by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mississippi, children in the program are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school.

“It’s just cool being there for someone,” Hollywood said. “I see the program getting bigger with us getting out there and spreading the word.”

For Sides, there’s not too much else she can imagine herself doing.

“I can’t say it’s more rewarding than teaching, but it definitely fulfills that feeling of accomplishment,” she said. “Parents are constantly calling me and texting me, telling me what a positive impact it’s had on their children. I love it.”

Angie is the daughter of Buddy and Mary Ann Steverson of Prentiss.