The Project: Big Buddy programme sees millennial volunteers pairing up with fatherless kids

Children without dads can now partner up with the next big thing - a Big Buddy.

The Big Buddy programme pairs up largely millennial volunteers with kids who need a reliable and stable male presence in their lives.

Big Buddy volunteer Nat Milnes, 23, thinks of himself as "a big kid" - good at looking after children, but struggles to look after himself. 

When Milnes was a teen, a tragedy changed his life forever. So, at the age at 21, while fellow millennials were practising selfies, Milnes felt compelled to practice a bit of selflessness. He became a Big Buddy.

"I'm now 23. I've been with Gabriel for two years," he told The Project.

"Nat is like a mate to me. It's fun," says Gabriel 'Gabe' Rowe, Milnes' 'Little Buddy'.

"In the early days of Big Buddy, we were seeing semi-retired guys [as volunteers] - 50 and over - who had kids that had left the nest," says Steve Sabota, Big Buddy's programme manager.

"Since then we are really noticing a change in the age group of the volunteers coming through.

"When I was in my 20s, I wasn't thinking about volunteering. I was thinking about going overseas. I think there is a shift in that millennial generation to do more local things - to find more meaning in their lives.

"I think it's a move away from social media, to greater engagement face to face."

"[Gabe] is teaching me to skate at the moment, it's pretty cool," says Milnes.

"We have lots of fun and talk as well. My mum is vegetarian, and we eat a lot of meat," says Gabe.

"It's important to show him that even without having a dad, you can still grow up into a successful adult," says Milnes.

Gabe's grandmother, Denise Ross, says Gabe has been raised by two women. His father has not been in his life at all.

Milnes can relate to growing up without a father.

"My dad passed away when I was 14... it was nice knowing there were men at school who did take an interest in what I was getting up to and wanted to see me succeed," he explained.

"I grew up with a dad who was born in World War Two," says Sabota.

"I think it was a struggle or him to connect at a deeper emotional level with me, as a father.

"I think there is a change of tide of what it means to be a man in New Zealand. More emotionally connected and more vulnerable. Angry but not violent, happy and joyful, and playful... so that bigger range of emotion. I think millennials are having a part in this shift."

"He helps me with getting my confidence," Gabe says about his Big Buddy.

Older generations have criticised millennials over the years, but younger folk do have one advantage - millennial men are typically more comfortable with expressing emotion. 

"If you have a mentor who is strong and self-contained, but is also vulnerable and able to access and regulate their emotions effectively, we are going to be teaching boys to be in charge of their emotions - not scared," says child psychologist Dr Emma Woodward.

"If your Little Buddy or your son can see that you're not 100 percent comfortable being yourself, they are gonna pick up on it," says Milnes.

"I think it's really cool to show that regardless of your upbringing, you can turn into whatever man you want to be."

The Project.