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Members of Penn's Big Brother, Big Sister program meet in St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia last November. The program received its largest number of applicants this year, which allowed them to create 300 Big and Little "matches."

While other groups on campus have seen recent pullbacks in spending and drops in funding, Penn's Big Brothers Big Sisters program is growing more robustly than ever.

The five-year-old organization received its largest number of applicants this semester, bringing up its "matches" between Bigs and Littles to 300 so far this spring, according to Penn student director and College senior Eileen McKeown.

The program has matched a total of 454 Penn students with youth in eight schools across Philadelphia this school year.

Yesterday, five of BBBS's most-generous donors - some of whom are Penn graduates and former Bigs - made their annual trip to Center City to visit students at two of the program's partner schools.

Donations to the program have remained mostly unscathed by the economic downturn. BBBS has no plans to shrink the size of its program or recruitment efforts at Penn, Fox associate director Josh Power said.

"People seem to be a lot more selective about who they're giving to," BBBS Corporate and University Recruiter Elizabeth Caldarola said. "In the past, maybe they've written checks to several organizations and now they're only writing one or two."

BBBS has also received significantly more requests for information and results from donors who want to ensure the groups they support are effective, according to Caldarola.

The majority of donations go toward maintaining the program's full-time support staff teams, which check in with Bigs, Littles and their parents every month, as well as toward transportation costs to shuttle Bigs between campus and the various schools.

Caldarola added that the group is developing more creative methods to obtain funding, including aligning BBBS's missions with issues that are important to Philadelphia, such as violence prevention.

The Penn chapter has the largest BBBS campus presence in the nation and is the biggest source of volunteers in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

McKeown and Caldarola attributed the huge boost in student interest this semester to the program's push in early spring recruitment for next fall and to word-of-mouth from the growing number of participants.

The organization is also reaching out more than before to larger student groups on campus, such as Hillel and the Greek system, in an effort to recruit 200 additional members this spring.

BBBS has also planned new events to further engage current participants, such as study breaks on campus for Bigs and an end-of-year party for Bigs, Littles and their families.

Penn's program is also co-sponsored by the Fox Leadership Program, which provides institutional support in the form of office space and helps mobilize the student board.

"I don't think there's anything unique about Penn per se - we have a model that hopefully can be replicated at other urban colleges across the country," Power said.

"Community service is a big part of a lot of Penn students' lives," McKeown said. "And to see firsthand the impact they have on life of a child is a really fulfilling way of doing community service."

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