BB&T: The Gift of Giving


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It’s amazing what a little enthusiasm can do. No one knows this better than Branch Banking and Trust Company (BB&T), one of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ corporate partners and the Diamond Sponsor for the agency’s Ice Ball gala for the second year in a row.

“We believe in BBBS’ mission,” said Blake Absher, BB&T’s Austin Market President and a former Big Brother. “We know that BBBS’ mentoring model works. As an organization, we want to be more than BBBS’ Diamond Ice Ball Sponsor. We want our employees to be involved with, and invested in, advancing the agency’s life-changing work.”

It is this goal that inspired BB&T to organize a summer-long, city-wide competition amongst their branches to see which one could raise the most money for Big Brothers Big Sisters. The campaign began in May and will run through mid-August. “We’re very competitive,” laughed Cathy Haines, BB&T’s Retail and Small Business Leader, a former Big Sister and the person overseeing the organization’s fundraising initiative. “Our employees have really taken ownership of this effort and they have organized a lot of different activities, from selling candy bars at the branch offices to raffling off gift baskets.”

Employees have also taken their fundraising efforts to Business Network International (BNI) gatherings where they have talked about Big Brothers Big Sisters and made pitches for contributions, and they have coordinated happy hour events where a portion of the tab has been donated to the campaign.

One BB&T employee who attended Ice Ball last year has taken her fundraising efforts to new heights by creating a personal email campaign that she distributed to all of her clients. “Susan has really been a driving force behind this initiative,” Cathy remarked. “Other employees have been inspired by what she’s done. She will probably be our top individual fundraiser this year.”

“It’s been fun to see this campaign snowball,” Blake added. “The excitement is contagious. Last year our employees raised $10,000; this year, we’re on track to raise significantly more than that.”

But raising funds is only part of what this effort has achieved. BB&T’s city-wide campaign has raised awareness of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ work within the organization and within the community, created a greater sense of camaraderie among employees, and allowed employees to make a positive difference for children and families in Central Texas.

“By fundraising in this way, every associate in our organization has contributed to BBBS’ mission, and in doing so, they have helped to make the community a better place for us all,” Cathy said. “There’s a real sense of pride in that.”

Moreover, this effort exemplifies BB&T’s mission as an organization. “A lot of companies have giving back to the community as part of their mission statement,” Blake added. “Implementing this campaign has allowed us to ‘walk the walk’ and put our values into action. It has given our employees an opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves and to experience the difference their actions can have in the world.”

Several BB&T employees will also have the opportunity to see the impact their efforts have made by attending Ice Ball. The two BB&T branches that raise the most money in the campaign will receive two Ice Ball tickets each, along with a hotel suite. The branches can then bestow these prizes on one employee or split them between two employees. “It’s really competitive because our employees all want to go to Ice Ball,” Blake explained. “And that is really neat to see. Attending Ice Ball is a reward for championing and advocating a cause that is near and dear to us. When employees attend the gala they get even closer to BBBS’ mission and they get to be part of a larger community of individuals and organizations who are also there to support the agency’s work. And it’s such a great event.”

For employees who have families or who live in outlying areas and can’t be Big Brothers or Sisters themselves, BB&T’s fundraising campaign gives them another means of contributing to BBBS’ work in a meaningful way.

“When you see all that is happening in the world, all these horrific events, you wonder if a positive influence or a mentor in someone’s life could have changed the outcome,” Blake said. “As former Bigs, Cathy and I have both seen the positive impact mentoring has on kids. In banking, we’re not in the business of saving lives, so for us to give back, to see that good in the community and to know we’re helping current and future generations – that means a lot to us.”

Providing Hope – Guest Post by Jennifer Reyes

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What difference does mentoring make? Can it really change a life? You might well wonder.

Several months ago we received a letter from a former Little Sister who had written to tell us about her experience.  Here, in her own words, is Jennifer’s account of the difference that her relationship with her Big Sister made for her. We appreciate her willingness to share her story. It is powerful. —BBBS


Hello.  I don’t know how to start this message, but here goes. I used to be a Little Sister, back in 2002 or so. My Big Sister’s name was Kelly Miller.

As a child, my life was hard. It changed immensely after my only parent passed away tragically. In our household, love was rarely to never shown. I did not know how it felt to be cared about, and Kelly showed me that much-needed affection. She took such good care of me and I miss her dearly.

I can still recall exactly how I felt when I saw her. My heart would beat with excitement as I waited for her on my doorstep. I always looked forward to her arrival. I would run out and jump happily into her small Toyota, anxious to find out what we had in store for that day. She never failed to disappoint.

I liked to draw a lot as a kid and she bought me a sketch book and tools so that I could draw to my heart’s content. I wanted to learn to drive a standard car, so she began showing me the basics. I loved swimming, so she constantly took me swimming. She worked at Dell and I liked computers, so she took the time to show me how to work with one. One time, she took me to the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater. I had never been there before, and it was so awesome! I had no idea there were places where you could eat and watch movies at the same time! I will never forget that day. She bought me a chocolate mousse cake and I devoured it as we got ready to watch the movie.

My sisters envied me so much and I loved it! Sometimes Kelly even let me bring a sister or two along on our outings! I never wanted to leave her side.

Kelly knew all my idiosyncrasies and encouraged me to be true to myself at all times. I had never had a relationship with an adult the way I had one with her.

Some of my older family members criticized Kelly because I spent so much time with her. They said it was weird for a stranger to be so nice to a child. I thought it was horrible for them to talk about her, when all she knew was to be kind. But what they didn’t know is that this beautiful woman was reaching out to a very lost child, pulling me out of a dark place that I just couldn’t shake off. Before Kelly came into my life, I would lock myself in closets for hours at a time, and I was secretly starving and hurting myself. I felt so alone and depressed.

I am grateful for Kelly’s role in my life, and even though I haven’t seen her in a long time, I appreciate her greatly. She showed me love when I needed it the most. She deserves a lot of credit for the person that I have become today. If it weren’t for her, I know that I would have ended up in an environment that I should not have been in.

I am in school now, working toward my Bachelor’s degree in Social Work. I will transfer to UT soon, and I also have a daughter of my own. Thanks to my amazing Big Sister Kelly Miller, I knew from early on how important my education would be.

I want to thank you for allowing me and my sisters to be part of this amazing program. Kelly was a wonderful person and a positive role model. I have so much to thank her for. My only hope is that you can help me find her. I will never forget the genuine kindness she showed me.

She provided hope to a little girl who had none.

Thank you,

Jennifer Reyes

Photo: Jennifer Reyes with her daughter, Rosalee.

Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Kids Learn to Sail at Hobie Day 2016



Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas held its annual sailing event, Hobie Day, on Saturday, August 6, at Lake Travis for hundreds of Littles in the BBBS program. Over 200 Littles, their family members and mentors enjoyed swimming and sailing on catamarans and sailboats. The Austin Cats, a group of sailing enthusiasts, have hosted the event for nearly forty years.

“It’s a great way for Bigs and Littles to learn a new skill together,” said Joe Strychalski, VP of Programs. “It gives them the chance to encourage each other and work as a team.”

Hobie Day is one of the few BBBS organized events where Bigs and Littles get to spend time with the Little’s family members as well. In addition to sailing, attendees enjoyed swimming, playing games and lounging along the shoreline.

“We’ve been matched for two and a half years, but this is the first time we’ve been able to come,” said Little Sister Kira. “We will definitely be back next year.”


The event wouldn’t be possible without the support of volunteers. The Austin Yacht Club and the Young Men’s Service League Cavalier’s Chapter provided over 25 volunteers who helped with tasks like equipping attendees with life jackets, assisting people as they got onto the boats and cleaning up after the event. Throughout the years, the Austin Cats have also donated countless hours of their time preparing for and hosting the event.

“Our fleet really enjoys the opportunity to show off the sport of sailing,” said Mike Beuerlein of the Austin Cats. “We know the kids can sail successfully, and we really love to give them the chance to see that they can do it.”

Hobie Day is one of many ways BBBS works to empower and support kids, while also giving Bigs and Littles the opportunity to strengthen their relationships with one another.

“The two of us go swimming all the time, but we’ve never sailed or done anything like this before,” said Big Sister Trisha. “This has been the perfect way to finish off the summer together.”

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See more photos on our Flickr album here

Spotlight on Ellen Harsch

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BBBS does a terrific job of matching people to form successful mentoring relationships. A huge part of this success can be attributed to the extensive interview process set up by the agency. One of the people involved in overseeing the interviews is Enrollment Supervisor Ellen Harsch.

“It’s all about quality. I’m not going to force a match,” Ellen said. “That’s not good for anybody.”

Consequently, Ellen and the enrollment team often spend close to an hour and a half getting to know potential Bigs and Littles. While it is certainly an in-depth interview, it is one that works to assess the compatibility of those involved.

“I approve all of the assessments made by our enrollment team,” Ellen explained. “I make sure that these assessments are professional, thorough, and that they include everything we require to make a strong match.”

Lining up all of these pieces can be involved as the team looks at geography – where the Big and Little live, their preferences in a match, their interests, and their personalities. Ellen has worked at BBBS for 9 years which gives her good insight into the process.

“I love hearing people’s stories. They are fascinating and encouraging,” Ellen added. “Sometimes it can be hard to hear what kids have been through, but then I’ll meet a Big with a similar story and I’ll see that they are thriving.” It inspires the team to know that a child who has had a rough start is succeeding.

One of the tough aspects of Ellen’s job is knowing that BBBS can’t serve everyone. “That’s really hard,” she said. “But I am learning to set boundaries, trying not to take work home as much and trying to take care of myself.”

Ellen uses her free time to read and cook. She has especially enjoyed a new kitchen appliance – the Instant Pot multi cooker. “Have you tried this? It’s amazing!” she exclaimed. “My husband and I are experimenting with one or two dishes a week.” She is also involved in her church, and enjoys spending time gardening.

In addition, Ellen not only talks the talk, she walks the walk of BBBS. Like a number of other employees, she is also a Big Sister. “It is so rewarding,” she said. “I believe in mentoring, and I get to see the process work both on the job and in my personal life as well.”

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette on Building Capacity


Mentoring matters. Just ask Huston-Tillotson University President Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, who is nearing her one-year anniversary as head of the Austin institution.

Having benefited from the presence of strong mentors in her own life and having seen the impacts that mentoring makes on her students, Dr. Burnette understands the value of mentoring. She also recognizes the importance of physical spaces that facilitate mentoring in the community, which is why she is so excited about the creation of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ new Bennett-Rathgeber Mentoring Center.

“BBBS’ mission is parallel to Huston-Tillotson’s,” Dr. Burnette explained. “Our organizations exist to build the capacity of others. Bricks and mortar are not only tools that advance this work, they say something about its significance.”

“BBBS’ new mentoring center is a sign of growth and of spreading this good work further,” Dr. Burnette continued, “but it is so much more than that. The new center is a symbol of the difference that mentoring makes and it tells children, families and the community that they are worth investing in.”

“Mentoring is transformational. BBBS’ new mentoring center will have a transformational effect on the agency and on the community as a whole…. and when children and families walk in the door of that new space, they will know that they matter.”

Dr. Burnette’s connection with mentoring began at an early age. When her grandmother went to the meat market in Cleveland, Ohio where Burnette grew up, she would ask for extra pieces of the butcher’s paper. Her grandmother then wrote multiplication tables and vocabulary words on the paper and placed them around the kitchen. “My grandmother always made me toast and English tea for breakfast,” Dr. Burnette recalled with a smile, “and I couldn’t have any until I knew all of that day’s vocabulary words and math facts.”

Little did Burnette know that this early mentoring experience would lead her to become the president of a university in Austin, Texas, where today she is continuing her grandmother’s work as an educator and mentor. “I still carry her with me,” Dr. Burnette said. “I still carry the ‘black girl magic’ she taught me…the belief that I can do anything.”

Her enterprising spirit enabled Dr. Burnette to obtain an engineering degree and an excellent position in the corporate world.  “My career is split in half,” she explained. “During the first half, I was a briefcase-carrying corporate executive, but I always had a passion to do something that required heart and mind. Then I tried working with higher education. A mentor of mine told me that I’d never excel if I didn’t have teaching experience, so, much to the dismay of friends and family, I quit my corporate job to teach at a community college.”

Seventeen years later she is still immersed in the world of education, a field that she sees providing opportunity for each generation. “My grandmother saw education as the key to opportunity,” Dr. Burnette remarked. “As a child, I didn’t know that college was optional. I just thought it was the ‘13th grade.’ It was what came after high school.”

“Every generation’s plateau is the platform or springboard for the next generation,” she continued, “and it is education that allows us to advance from one level to the next.”

This philosophy underscores Dr. Burnette’s passion for the work of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and mentoring organizations. She perceives these organizations as offering opportunities to groups that are often overlooked. “At Huston-Tillotson we do something special which is a part of mentoring. We wrap students up in a cocoon of safety and we help them understand that they are special, that they matter, that they are smart and that they can succeed. We give them the support and the tools they need to explore, to develop and to grow…which is what BBBS does as well.”

As the two organizations help individuals, Dr. Burnette knows that they are also helping the community as a whole. “Successful students and mentees become happy, productive citizens, and happy citizens are connected to the community and motivated to give back. BBBS helps students and families find better, more successful paths forward, and that helps everyone.”

“And I’m not just talking about economics or keeping kids off welfare or out of the juvenile justice system,” Dr. Burnette continued, “It’s so much more than that. When children miss out on opportunities to discover and realize their potential, our community loses doctors and teachers and artists. We lose wealth and capacity in a very different way.”

There is a natural connection in Dr. Burnette’s mind between BBBS and Huston-Tillotson University; a connection that extends to the new mentoring center. “BBBS’ new facility will take the agency’s work to a new level by building the organization’s capacity to add staff, to serve more children, families and volunteers, to engage with clients, donors and community partners and to serve as a greater resource for the community as a whole.”

“The new mentoring center will also make a powerful impression and statement, and when children see the new, bigger and better building they will think ‘This is about me. This is for me. I am important.’ And that sense of being valued is critical. It is what we all need to thrive.”