For Jeff Swanberg and Sean Hyland, a long mentoring relationship began with a game of tag and an impromptu ice cream stop.
Sean, then 8, was very nervous and shy for the first meeting with Big Brother Jeff. At their first meeting, the duo started by playing tag in the yard, then went for ice cream.
“It was a super easy way for me as a kid to get used to a new person,” Sean recalls eight years later.
“They came back a half-hour later totally changed,” Sean’s mother, Colleen Hyland, says. “Sean was more relaxed and couldn’t wait to see Jeff again. It was like an instantaneous change.”
Anxiety and anger
Their friendship had its roots in darker days, after Sean’s father left. The 8-year-old, once a “happy-go-lucky kid,” began experiencing sadness, anxiety and depression, Hyland says. She sought out Big Brothers Big Sisters at the urging of a friend, and today declares: “It was the best thing I ever did!
“The main reason I did it was to have an adult male influence in Sean’s life. I do what I can, but I’m a girl, and I’m very girly. So, my idea was to have that adult male influence on Sean – someone Sean could talk to about personal things,” she explains.
She never expected how quickly Sean would take to him.
“When Jeff came into the picture, it was almost instantaneous how the anger stopped, and the sadness,” she says. “They had a lot of hope, and realized, ‘Life goes on. Might not have my father around, but here’s someone else who wants to be around me.’”
‘Just sit and listen’
Swanberg says helping Sean through that period was an easy prescription: Listen to what Sean wanted and needed to say.
“There would be times when we would simply sit on the swings at the playground, or wherever we happened to be, and they just needed to vent a little bit,” he says. “To have a mentor who literally could just sit and listen to them work through those emotions, tell them that they’re not crazy to feel angry or sad about these things, that these are perfectly normal feelings to have – that’s critical. Sometimes these children don’t have anybody else … they can go to [and] do that.”
Mentors can help young people handle negative emotions, build confidence, process challenging events, set boundaries, and think creatively, Jeff says.
“Having that adult mentor there who gives you some language to talk about – whether it’s your emotions, or how you’re doing in school … just gives children more experience with different people who they know are going to be safe, who they know are going to be there for them, who they know can help them,” he adds.
As their friendship has evolved, conversations have moved from ice cream choices to deeper topics, says Sean, who uses they/them pronouns and is a member of the LGBTQ+ community. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to have more honest discussions about difficult things with him,” from struggles with school to gender issues, Sean says. “I know I can trust him, I know I can open up. … He’s a really good listener about things like that, he doesn’t sugar-coat things.”
‘You can find the space to be you’
Swanberg says his experience growing up as a self-described nerd in a macho, football-oriented school culture helped him understand the difficulty of navigating environments where you don’t feel as if you fit in.
“It still takes learning, it still takes some processing, you still need really good role models who can help show you this is the way you can act, this is an appropriate way you can be. Don’t worry about that kind of prevailing culture,” Swanberg points out. “You can find the space to be you within that.”
Now 16, Sean is focused on studies and college plans, with hopes of going into the fashion industry. Swanberg, a scientist by trade, has helped spur an interest in science.
“Their relationship has evolved – it’s almost more like a friendship now,” Hyland says.
Sean says Jeff was the first person to take them to their first Pride event, a Boston parade. “That was really cool of him to be supportive in that way and kind of encourage me to like myself in that way and to see more of the community.”
Hyland calls Swanberg “so open and awesome and positive. Just knowing that someone else is here besides your parent that you could call, send a text, it’s huge.”
A sample of local activities that Jeff and Sean have enjoyed:
- Seeing the animals at Southwick Zoo and riding high on the Skyfari
- Getting lost and finding their way in the Davis Mega Maze
- Visiting the New England Aquarium in Boston and seeing the seal exhibit
- Checking out the interactive exhibits at the Discovery Museum in Acton (“I have a Spirograph diagram we made on the floor Spirograph they have – it must have been like 6 feet by 6 feet,” Jeff recalled.)