A Little Goes A Long Way

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He may have been the smallest player on the football field, but he made a big impact at the Colt McCoy Football Camp. Seven-year-old BBBS Little Brother Dajuan Jessie impressed everyone as he competed with 16-year-olds and came away with the #1 Draft Pick award at the camp this past July.

“On the first day of the camp I was sitting up in the stands when they announced they were going to select someone as the #1 Draft Pick,” said Joel Luton, Dajuan’s Big Brother. “I thought, ‘I wonder who’s gonna win that.’ And only two hours into the camp, out of approximately 200 students, they chose Dajuan.”

Dajuan was very “chill” about winning the award and the games during the camp, Joel explained. But his grandmother, Christi, who he lives with, said Dajuan couldn’t stop talking about the event and winning the award after it was all over. When Dajuan was asked how he won the event he simply shrugged, glanced at his grandmother and said, “I eat my carrots.”

dajuan-5“In one game I just went up the middle and they were trying to get me but I stiff-armed them and slapped their hands away,” Dajuan continued, reliving the moment. When his grandmother asked if the other players could catch him, he replied simply, “No.”

People who know Dajuan are not completely surprised. Match Support Specialist, Rah-Taja Doggett, who supported Joel and Dajuan’s match said, “Dajuan may be small in stature, but he is very fast. He’s also very smart with a very high reading level and he’s been playing in the city league since he was five.”

Plus, he just loves football, which also makes him a perfect match with Joel. “When I interviewed to be a Big I asked to be matched with a younger kid who was active, liked sports, and had a sense of humor,” Joel said. The two have hit it off perfectly, spending time going to UT baseball games, UT football scrimmages, and even going bowling.

“They put the bumpers up when we went bowling,” Joel added. “Dajuan had never bowled before and he was really pleased that he was beating me.”

Joel says that he can see that competitive spirit in Dajuan when he participates in anything and that it’s part of what helps the youngster succeed. “He takes (football) very seriously,” Joel explained. “Dajuan was one of the smallest kids at the camp, but he was the one who caught a bunch of passes in a row.”

During the camp the players were placed on teams and in divisions by age. There were five teams in Dajuan’s division and his team won all their games and received a gold medal. “I asked him if he was the reason they won,” Joel said “and he confidently said, ‘Yes.’”

Dajuan also applies his competitive spirit to his academics: on his most recent report card he scored all A’s.

dajuan4He participated in the Colt McCoy Football Camp with tickets donated to BBBS. “When BBBS offered the camp openings to any match that wanted to participate, I jumped at the chance,” Joel said.

Joel got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters over 20 years ago in Houston when he took over a match for a friend who was being transferred out of the country. He eventually had to move and end the match himself. A couple of years ago, however, when he retired in Austin, he began to think about what he wanted to do with his time. He knew he wanted to volunteer and, being familiar with BBBS, he signed up to become a Big.

“I took Dajuan to a UT scrimmage. He had never been in DKR Texas Memorial Stadium and he was just entranced by it,” Joel said. “This is what I enjoy most about being a Big Brother…. seeing these things, the stadium and the football players, through the eyes of a kid. Seeing that excitement.”

Dajuan’s sense of humor is something else Joel enjoys. The two were on one of their first outings riding around in the car when Dajuan told Joel that his grandfather had passed away and that he was an angel in heaven. He then asked about Joel’s parents. “I told him my father was in heaven too but that my mother was still alive and that she was 96 years old. And there was this pause in the conversation and Dajuan said, ‘That’s just not right,’” Joel laughed. “I told my mother and she got a chuckle out of it too.”

The Texas Longhorns are Dajuan’s favorite team right now and he hopes to grow up to play for them. “I want to be a football player when I get bigger,” Dajuan said. “And I’m gonna play in the NFL. But when I play in the NFL I’m gonna get hit.”

He may get hit if they can catch him, but Dajuan is already showing he’s got the skills to pursue his dreams and come out ahead.

 

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Spotlight on Diana Hernandez

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From the outside Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas may seem “low key,” but behind the scenes there are a lot of moving parts. One of the people who keeps these moving parts flowing is match support supervisor Diana Hernandez.

A 4-year BBBS veteran, Diana came to the agency after interning at Texas Health and Human Services. “I’d heard about the organization while there and had some families connected to both groups,” Diana said. “I started reading about BBBS. I really liked the goals of the agency and applied for a position.”

Diana is responsible for supporting the Match Support Specialists at BBBS – the team who oversee and facilitate all of BBBS’ mentoring relationships. “I’m there to support and encourage the team,” Diana continued. “I assign new matches to specialists, answer questions, oversee schedules and help balance the workload.”

It can be an extensive workload as staff are tasked with overseeing hundreds of mentoring matches and preparing numerous reports. As a supervisor Diana understands the workload and is there to help. “One of the skills needed for this job is that of being super organized,” Diana explained. “I work on making sure there is a system in place to help staff and communicate with the team to make sure no one is overwhelmed.”

Having support systems in place will be very important in the coming months as the department has challenged themselves to try to make 140 new matches by the end of the calendar year.

“I know we can do it,” Diana said. “And we are working to make the challenge fun, rewarding the team with prizes along the way as we achieve our goals.”

With all the hard work comes a lot of satisfaction. “I get satisfaction from hearing the stories of our Littles. For example, when a Little doesn’t have a positive female role model in her house, but I hear that her new Big Sister is fulfilling that role in her life, or I hear from a mom how a Little is doing so much better since being matched with a Big Brother or Sister. That keeps me going. I know we are making a difference.”

When she’s not at BBBS, Diana enjoys spending time with her own two children – Julieta, age 8 and Israel, age 5 – and her husband, Ever. “We enjoy going to the park, playing board games and having movie nights,” she said. Diana also spends free time helping youth outside of BBBS as the youth coordinator for her church.

Game Changers: Growing Support For Children in Need

toni-schach-headshot-cropBig Brothers Big Sisters’ mentoring services are often life-changing for the children, families and volunteers involved.

The impacts of our program are great, but the need is even greater. BBBS serves approximately 1,000 children each year, but for every child we serve, there is another child on our waiting list longing to be matched with a caring mentor of their own. And, as our population grows, the demand for our services grows with it.

To address this need, BBBS has developed a new program called Game Changers.

“Game Changers is a program that encourages individuals to make monthly contributions to BBBS,” said Lauren Portley, BBBS’ vice president of development. “Individuals who sign up to become Game Changers will receive regular communication regarding how their contributions are impacting children and helping BBBS make new matches, and, as members, they will also be invited to participate in unique networking and social events throughout the year.”

The program offers a great opportunity for people who can’t spare the extra time to be Bigs to contribute, as well as providing an introduction to giving. “A lot of people are at an early stage in their careers and can’t afford to give at a ‘gala’ level, but they’re looking for ways to give back,” said Toni Schach, operations manager for The HT Group and BBBS’ new Game Changers committee chair. “Maybe they’re not ready to be a Big but they have some extra money that they could contribute. With Game Changers, gifts of any size make a difference. Anything from $5 to $50 a month or more goes a long way.”

In addition, Game Changers will allow more people to be involved with BBBS on an ongoing basis. The new program will provide a continuous source of income for the organization and lessen its dependence on fundraising events that happen just once a year. “Events like Ice Ball and Bowl for Kids are important, but BBBS needs money and participation year-round,” Toni explained. “With Game Changers, BBBS can host smaller events more frequently, provide a wider range of giving opportunities, and foster new relationships.”

Relationships are central to BBBS’ work, so it is only natural that they play a part in raising funds for the organization. Game Changers will take interpersonal connections to new levels as unique events are planned for existing members and to recruit new members.

“We are planning a kickoff event in November that will include networking with a twist. It will be fun,” Toni said. “We’re also thinking about holding a scavenger hunt around Austin or possibly conducting a brewery tour. Activities like these will allow participants to bond with people they wouldn’t normally meet, have a great time, and raise money for a great organization.”

BBBS is looking for volunteers to help plan and organize Game Changers events, businesses that want to participate, and most importantly, individuals who want to sign up to become Game Changers. “We’re looking to build a community,” Toni added. “I also believe that when new or prospective members come to a meeting and hear how children’s lives are being changed, they will want to be a part of BBBS’ mission forever.”

The notion of starting small and building up mirrors Toni’s personal association with BBBS. Her job requires her to work varied hours, so she has been unable to commit to being a Big. However, since signing up to help with Ice Ball in 2015, her involvement with BBBS has steadily increased.

“I had heard about BBBS growing up and I’ve always thought it was a great organization. I don’t have children, but have always loved them,” Toni admitted. “I can’t hang out with a Little first thing in the morning or at 10:00 p.m. when I get off work, so my committee work is a way to help the children in our community.”

“I see the difference BBBS’ one-to-one mentoring makes,” she said. “I was fortunate to grow up with parents who had their own business, and I got to spend a lot of time with them. But I also had a lot of friends who didn’t have that stability and I saw the direction some of their lives took.”

Toni believes that one-to-one bond is priceless. “Nothing can replace having someone to go to for advice and support.” And the impacts of BBBS’ mentoring program bear this out. “When I hear about the numbers of Littles who stay in school and graduate, it’s amazing and very motivating.”

It is also a positive cycle. “The more children we get off the waiting list and into mentoring relationships, the more children graduate and start contributing to the community, and these children often become Big Brothers and Sisters themselves,” Toni said. “BBBS is a perpetual-motion kind of organization. Getting kids off the waiting list is a big priority, and Game Changers is an important way to make that happen.”

Sign up to become a Game Changer here

Contact Lauren Portley to learn more

Going the Distance

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It could be Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas’ longest-running match. It’s hard to be sure. What those involved can be sure of is the life-changing impact this match has had on both the Big, John Farnish, and his Little Brother, Fidencio Perez.

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“I was about 7 or 8 when we were matched,” Fidencio said. “On one of our first outings we went to Peter Pan putt-putt golf and then to Sandy’s Frozen Custard Stand afterwards. I’d never been to either one, never had a dipped ice cream cone. That was a first experience for me and it was great!”

Fidencio was matched with John Farnish, an employee at Bergstrom Air Force Base. John grew up on the streets of Philadelphia until he got help from a local priest. He made a commitment then that if he ever “made it out” he would help someone else. Consequently, he became a Big Brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

As a Big, John asked to be matched with a child who “had a tough shot at life.” Fidencio’s circumstances were difficult. He had been exposed to drugs, alcohol and violence, and his home life was hurting his school work and negatively impacting his sleep. John and his wife, Dot, provided much-needed support and filled in a lot of the pieces missing in Fidencio’s life before they even had children of their own.

“In the fifth grade I was in a school play, and John and his wife were there. Soccer, he was at every game. Football, he was at every game,” Fidencio recalled. “I rarely saw my mom. I never met my dad. I was living at my grandma’s when we were matched. But John was always there.”

John encouraged Fidencio’s love of the outdoors and took him on camping trips. He even taught him how to fish, something Fidencio still enjoys today.

“I remember the travels, the places we went and the things we did,” he said, “but the things I remember most were our conversations. We talked about everything – girls, school, politics. And he listened.”

John offered Fidencio advice and suggested things he might try, something he still does today.

Yes, you read that correctly. More than 40 years later, this match is still active. These two men still check in on each other, and still talk about what is going on in their lives. They may only talk two or three times a year, but the bond established as a Big and Little is alive and well.

“I respect John with all my heart,” Fidencio said. “He took the place of someone who was never there.”

When Fidencio turned 18 he asked John how he could pay him back for all he’d done for him. “John told me that I couldn’t… that instead I had to help someone else. So I started looking for ways to give back.”

For the next 11 years Fidencio paid it forward. He helped start a youth center in East Austin where he worked with hundreds of kids impacted by local gangs. On one occasion he got John to help him and he gave his former Big a tour of the center.

A year or two later, when they had gotten together following the death of John’s wife, John reflected on the work Fidencio was involved in. “He said, ‘That program you showed me… How many kids do you help?’ I told him the number was over 700, and he said ‘Well, you’ve paid me back.’ He remembered that conversation we’d had when I was 18.”

Fidencio met his wife, Gloria, when they both worked at the youth activity center. She has since become a Big Sister herself: another example of how BBBS’ impact continues to expand and to ripple outward, with one life and relationship affecting another. Fidencio and his wife both experienced real-life struggles, he explained, which is why they both felt so committed to helping kids with difficult backgrounds.

“BBBS is an amazing program,” Fidencio continued. “It guides children to something better. In the community I grew up in, dads just weren’t at home. Having a Big Brother definitely changed my life.”

That Big – Little connection didn’t stop when Fidencio graduated from high school. For more than 40 years John and Fidencio have continued to be there for each other, through struggles and losses and good times as well. They recently celebrated the 90th birthday of John’s mother-in-law, who Fidencio got to know early in the pair’s match.

“John has impacted my life in a way I didn’t think possible, and I’m totally grateful,” Fidencio remarked. “My whole life is better because of his influence. I met him as a Big Brother, but he has become so much more.”