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Fix the damn safety net

Jeannine Gant, CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters

This story breaks my heart.

Ali Ajanabiher, 23, was waiting in his family’s Dearborn, MI, home for his 29-year-old sister, Sajawith to take their mother for Friday prayers. He received a text from her, “At the door,” and then heard a shot. Opening the door, he saw his sister’s body, hanging out of a car, her face covered in blood. Sajawith was dead.

The suspects are 13, 14, and 17.

When do we have the conversation that something is terribly wrong with a society that allows this to happen? More to the point, when do we actually do something, beyond wringing our hands and offering the standard “must have been from troubled homes,” “you know his dad is in prison” and the always reliable “there must have been some mental health challenges” or ‘he had previous dealings with the law.”

The facts in this story may include one or more of these standard explanations, but that won’t change the fact that a life has been taken and three adolescents are charged with her murder, and we’re asking the same questions we ask every time:

  • What went wrong in the lives of these kids?

  • How could we have prevented such a senseless act?

  • What happened to them in their schooling?

  • Was there access to mental health services?

  • Didn’t their families, caregivers and neighbors of these youth know how to lead them on a steady path?

In other words, why wasn’t there a village to save them?

The answer: We failed those three youths. The safety net was broken, they fell through, and we’re asking how we can keep these stories from repeating.

And that’s where we keep getting stuck, because the answer involves money, and we too often let economics keep us from doing what we know needs to be done. We know what works. But we hear, “Throwing money at problems doesn’t work,” and it may sound wise, but it’s deceiving. Yes, foolishly spending money doesn’t work, but spending on what we know works is smart.

What works? Mentoring works. It’s a proven strategy to help prevent youth from turning the wrong way, often into the juvenile justice system, where they disappear, only to reappear in the adult prison system.

I know something about mentoring. As CEO and president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit, I’ve seen the following:

  • 98 percent of the youth in our program have no juvenile justice contact;

  • 70 percent will improve scholastic competency;

  • 59 percent will report enriched social acceptance among peers.

Mentorship fills a gap for the one in three youth who are missing key developmental relationships in their lives, a particularly important issue in the 43 percent of households in metro Detroit struggling to afford basic needs.

We need to help these kids, and we need resources do that.

Big Brothers Big Sisters spends about $1600 to match a youth with a well trained supportive mentor. That may sound expensive. It is expensive. Mentoring the right way is not cheap, especially when you consider what can go wrong if we’re not careful in recruiting, monitoring to ensure children are safe, supporting, and evaluating. To make that clearer, here’s what your $1,600 pays for: in-home assessment, youth and family interviews, volunteer recruitment, background checks, and training, making the mentor match with a youth, youth safety monitoring, youth activities and supporting the match until it ends, on average, about 3 years.

It may be no consolation that it’s less expensive than incarceration, rehabilitation, and years of monitoring returning citizens. That price tag is a cold reality which enjoys healthy public funding and generous dividends for those who capitalize on the misfortune of others, but then there is the cold reality that Sajawith’s life was cut short and the lives of three youth have been changed forever.

That’s where I started this message, but it’s not where I’m going to end it. Instead, I will tell you that you can go to any Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in this country and find stories that will make you cry the other kind of tears. There are beautiful children out there whose lives took a turn toward the sun because someone who was a village of one helped that child become what all of us want all of our children to become...happy, with a sense of belonging and the belief they can achieve success in life. Go find those stories or help create new ones.


Mentoring Works

Meet Khari. He faced difficult odds when he lost key members of his family during his childhood. He was enrolled as a “Little” with Big Brothers Big Sisters at age 12 by his adoptive mother. When his brother recently died, his mom knew he needed a male presence in his life.

Enter Jeff. Khari was matched with Jeff and they quickly made a connection. When Khari’s mother died from cancer, his junior year of high school, Jeff remained the constant presence Khari needed in his life. He graduated with honors, in spite of his obstacles, and will be attending college this fall. Kheri and our other Littles may not know the precise language, but they are better positioned to keep impulses in check and focus on schoolwork. They also demonstrate self- and social- awareness, decision making, self-management, and relationship skills. They probably don’t know the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit (BBBSMD), but you will now: to provide children facing adversity with safe, strong and enduring, professionally supported one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever.


Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit was formed in 1974 with the merger of five local Big Brother Big Sister organizations. Focusing on Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, we are the largest one-to-one mentoring organization in Southeast Michigan. BBBSMD serves just under 1000 youth annually with professionally supervised, one-to-one mentoring, using evidence-based practices based on the principles of Positive Youth Development. While we require a minimum one-year commitment from our mentors, they currently average 30 months, nearly three times that of other mentoring programs in the region. We serve at-risk populations, including children of incarcerated parents, youth identified by child welfare as high-risk for abuse/neglect, gang-involved youth, juvenile justice adjudicated youth, and youth aging out of the foster care system. But we also serve youth that are vulnerable, under resourced and who could benefit from a caring adult presence.

Over the next weeks, Big Brothers Big Sisters will be working with other youth-serving organizations and funders to convene a community conversation about our youth. We will work to bring together the best minds in youth development and prevention to help us repair our safety net. If you want to act immediately to become a mentor, donate, or share this blog on your social media, and, if you are interested in other “safety net” repair work, please email us.