By John Gillespie

Special to The CS&T

Big Sister Colleen Meaney and Little Sister Winette Josma meet once a week in a classroom of St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia to share experience sand polish basic skills.

The 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania senior and 9-year-old parochial school pupil are part of Big Brothers and Big Sisters (BBBS) of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The nationwide mentoring program has a flourishing presence in the Delaware Valley, thanks to the participation of Penn’s undergraduate Fox Leadership Program, which teaches that leadership means serving others.

The weekly visits to St. Francis have added a dimension to Meaney’s college life. Picked for the Fox Leadership Program two years ago, she has already spent time under the program’s auspices in New Orleans working for Catholic Charities with abused women and children. A graduate of Cardinal Dougherty High School and St. Cecilia School in the city’s Fox Chase section, she carries a strong sense of obligation to helping others. At Penn she joined the Newman Center, the Catholic student organization.

As a Big Sister to Josma, Meaney tries to “build trust and friendship” with a combination of play and tutoring in basic skills. She and her colleagues in the Fox Program developed a financial literacy course to teach fourth graders like Josma the value of good money management, including how to balance a checkbook.

The Newman Center, where Meaney serves as outreach chair in charge of recruitment, provides her another outlet for spiritual and social growth in the polyglot atmosphere of Penn’s campus.

“It’s nice that Penn is so spanerse, but it’s also nice to spend time with people who share your values,” she said. She calls Newman her “home” on campus.

Recently, Meaney and Josma became the 1,000th Big Brother Big Sister match between Penn students and Philadelphia’s school children. Penn President Amy Gutmann attended the ceremony at St. Francis de Sales School, 47th and Springfield Avenue. The Fox program sends Penn undergraduates to be Big Brothers and Big Sisters at eight schools in West Philadelphia, including three Catholic schools; Our Mother of Sorrows and St. Ignatius are the other two.

Joe Tierney, executive director of the Fox program, said that Penn has the largest campus-based Big Brothers Big Sisters progam in the United States. In five years the program had grown from 30 matches in the academic year 2003-04 to a projected 450 matches by the end of the current school year, he said. An English major, Meaney wants to teach high school English, preferably in Philadelphia.

John Gillespie is a member of St. Bridget Parish and former reporter for the Philadelphia Evening & Sunday Bulletin.