Online school is not easy for anybody.
Online school is a lot tougher when you live in a small house with five brothers and a mom who works two jobs.
“Do you hear that background noise in my house?” says Renee Hipp, as the rambunctious sounds of her five boys talking, bickering, playing and living in one space echoes off the walls.
How is online school going?
“Horrible. I don’t like it,” says Zech Hipp, a 15-year-old sophomore at Franklin High School in Seattle. He’s almost wistful as he thinks of all the years he spent complaining about regular school. “I wish I hadn’t said that stuff.”
“It’s hard to stay focused,” he says. “I can’t stay focused on one thing at a time.”
One saving grace: Zech’s “Big Brother,” Owen Kim, a software developer who’s been available — by phone, by Zoom, by text, whatever — to offer instruction, guidance or just commiseration.
“I’ve worked from home in the past. It’s a lot about setting up the physical space as much as possible,” says Kim, 33, who was matched with Zech through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, one of 12 local nonprofits boosted by reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. “As much as you can, have a dedicated space and make that space as comfortable as possible. I know that’s tricky with a lot of other things going on at the house.”
So in Zech’s room, in the converted attic, he’s set up a sort-of cubby in the corner, between a wall and the slanting roof. He’s got a little set-up to make tea (Kim has convinced him of the merits of tea over coffee) and, “I like cut off everybody else. That’s where I work,” Zech says.
Owen and Zech have been Big Brother and Little Brother for four years. For more than three years, they met pretty much every week, at least. They’d go to Starbucks. Or go for walks through different parts of the city. Or play video games (Nintendo Switch and PS4).
That was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Big Brothers Big Sisters has asked for all Big-Little relationships to go entirely virtual, to stem the spread of the virus.
But their relationship has continued. If anything, their contact is more frequent now, even if it’s not in person.
When school is frustrating, Zech can text Owen. When he doesn’t understand a geometry problem, he’ll send a picture of it to Owen.
“We usually just talk about life and how things are going and stuff, and one way I really do think that it’s helpful is to get all that … ,” Zech pauses, searching. “What’s the word?”
“Perspective?” Owen offers.
“Yeah, a different, older perspective of like life from someone who’s been through high school and all that other stuff and already picked a career,” Zech says. “It’s good to get that, to talk to about a different perspective.”
“Owen’s always there, he’s been very consistent even with this COVID stuff,” Renee said. “They’re either talking on the phone, they’re doing zoom calls and I think that consistency is really key.”
All five of her boys have had either Big Brothers or Big Sisters. Their father was incarcerated when they started with the program. Hipp works two jobs, as an assistant property manager for the Seattle Housing Authority and part-time, doing temperature checks at Snoqualmie Casino.
“It has done such wonders for our family, just having that extra mentor or Big for them,” Hipp said. “Being a single mom, it’s really hard to raise five boys while I’m continuing to work and try to keep my sanity. Just having them in our lives has been such a blessing.”
“It’s been a huge boon for me as well,” Owen said. “Zech has really enriched my life.”
Owen grew up in Seattle, moved to San Francisco for a while, and reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters after he moved back several years ago.
“In my adult life, I’ve kind of been mindful of doing something, I feel like it’s important to be a member of the community,” he said. “When I moved back I started looking for and thinking about ways that I would want to participate in the community.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound currently has about 1,300 kids paired with mentors in a region covering Lynnwood to Tacoma.
“Bigs” commit to spending a few hours a month with their “Littles,” for at least a year, but the agency strives to make longer-lasting relationships.
Parents, kids and potential mentors are all interviewed, both for safety purposes, but also to try to make the most effective matches between mentors and mentees.
“The process for a mentor is thorough but not painful,” said Tanisha Davis-Doss, the agency’s vice president of programs and compliance. “We try to match for lifelong relationships.”
They check in monthly with each pairing, organize events and give out occasional goodies. Last year, Zech and Owen went, with other pairings, to the Southcenter mall to go Christmas shopping with Jadeveon Clowney and a few other Seahawks.
Each kid got $200 to spend.
“What I remember, and this is one of the things that is great about Zech, he did his shopping for his family,” Owen said.
With more than 700 kids on a waiting list for mentors, the agency is always looking for more, especially men, Davis-Doss said.
One-quarter of the kids served by Big Brothers Big Sisters have been homeless within the past five years and nearly three-quarters come from low-income households, according to the agency’s most-recent annual report.
Kids from ages 6 to 18 can be matched with mentors, and the agency will continue to monitor the relationship until kids turn 21.
In 2018 and 2019, 100% of “Littles” who were high school seniors graduated from high school, the agency said.
“We have ‘Littles’ who have their ‘Bigs’ in their weddings and vice versa,” Davis-Doss, a Big Sister herself, said. “We believe in mentoring and it doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re coming from. Mentoring is good for all.”