Darlene Bell: Big Sister by choice

Ask Darlene Bell about her Little Sisters. Ask her about mentorship. Ask her about the African-American community.

Prepare to be inspired. Prepare for a call to action.

Bell grew up in a household where mentoring others was commonplace. Her parents were mentors to community members including Minnesota Vikings players, and they helped raise their nieces and nephews and cared for foster children.

“I learned at a very, very, very young age of giving of yourself,” Bell said. “Giving of yourself unconditionally.”

But when she became a “Big” through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities a decade ago, her understanding of mentoring changed and grew.

“The experience for me was life-changing,” she said, “in the sense that I’ve mentored since I was a teenager, but when it’s formalized, it puts it all in perspective.”

Bell knows firsthand the benefit of such a support system. As a teen mom, she was supported and mentored by her family and members of her church. It is little wonder, then, that she is passionate about helping young women – especially teenage mothers and women of color.

Bell worked for seven years at Big Brothers Big Sisters, most recently as the multicultural outreach director. She now is program manager of Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a program for children and their families in north Minneapolis that has a strong partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters. NAZ takes a holistic approach to fostering a child’s success, starting even before birth.

In addition, Bell is co-chair of Minneapolis CARES, a collaboration that helps recruit and train African-American adults to be mentors with not only Big Brothers Big Sisters, but also with Bolder Options, Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, MAD DADS and the Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota. She has volunteered with organizations that include Teenwise Minnesota, Lutheran Social Service, the YWCA and her church; and she was named a human rights commissioner for Brooklyn Park in 2008.

‘I’ve learned so much’

She has mentored three “Littles” through Big Brothers Big Sisters. “If you give, you’re gonna get it back!” asserted Bell, discussing her decision to commit to being a Big Sister.

“I had gifts and qualities that I brought to the relationship, but so did my Little Sister,” she said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters matches people based on likes and dislikes and on location. One of Bell’s Little Sisters was 11 when they were matched. They have remained close over the years, even when their proximity changed. Bell said she loves that young woman like a member of her own family.

But the program’s aim isn’t for Bigs to be surrogate parents to the Littles, and Bell said her relationship with her Little has not been parent-child.

“I’ve learned so much from my Little Sister, things that are so outside of the things that I’ve done with my own children and grandchildren,” she said. “Being a mentor came naturally for me because I was a parent – knowing how to love, how to be there for a child.”

Mentoring also is not giving a handout to a child or family, she said, but “giving a hand – and in return, they’re giving me one.”

“They’re just looking for somebody to be there, to stand in the gap. Somebody to listen, somebody to lead,” she said. “If our young people don’t stand for something, they’ll fall for anything.”

Take the time to make time

Bell sees a desperate need for people of color to step up as mentors. Preferred traits? “Able, stable adults” ready to fill a gap in a child’s life. And yes, there’s always a need for more men.

“I believe that in this society today there’s leaders and then there’s ringleaders,” she said. “A lot of times what’s happening to our young people is it’s a lot of ringleaders out there, where that’s the gangs, prostitution. If we don’t as a society reach out and try to pull them in, you better believe that somebody out there on the street will reach out and recruit them and mentor them in a negative way.

“It’s not always going to be easy,” she added. “We still have to have the hard conversations.”

Bell realizes that time is a barrier – or a perceived barrier – for many people. But she said that when she became a formal mentor, she realized she could simply include her Little Sister in her family’s activities and her daily life.

“It was life-changing for me because it changed my way of thinking, it changed my way of life,” Bell said. “I made that time, and I thank God I did make that time because it did make a difference, in her life and in mine.”

While she acknowledged that mentoring isn’t for everyone, Bell asserted that many people have it in them, if they’re willing to make the effort. Couples or colleagues may work together, or volunteers could meet kids in a school setting. What’s important is that someone is there for a child.

“I look at the African-American community and I feel like the village is on fire,” she said. “There’s so many pockets of the Twin Cities where the village is on fire and we need all hands on deck. That means you step into that role with unconditional love, you step into that role with understanding. You meet people where they’re at. No judgment.

“Being a mentor,” she continued, “you have to have all those things.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities: 
Northside Achievement Zone: northsideachievement.org