Opening Doors: Joe and Brian

Recognizing the role of mentors in your own life is a step toward understanding BBBS’ mission and impact. Having benefited from mentoring himself, Joe Gomez is now seeking to “pay it forward” as a Big Brother to his Little Brother, Brian.

“My father, like Brian’s, was incarcerated during most of my youth,” said Joe. “We have both been raised by single moms. As busy as his mother is, it’s really difficult for her to spend time on academics and athletics.”

Joe considers himself a “personal trainer” who is helping his Little Brother work harder in school and on the field so that he can see the positive results of his efforts. “Our time together gives Brian the opportunity to challenge himself. We work on basic skills, motivation, and on refining what he’s focusing on.”

“When we were first matched, college wasn’t something Brian looked forward to or thought about,” Joe continued, “so I took him to visit the University of Texas campus where we walked around, met some of the staff, checked out the football field, and ate in one of the dormitories.”

“I wanted him to see how everyone on that campus is different – different races, different backgrounds. I wanted him to know that the people there are people just like us who are going to a university, graduating, and going on to the next stage of their lives. Our tour made college seem real and tangible, rather than like an unattainable pipe dream.”

College is the reason Joe became so focused on the importance of mentoring himself. Growing up without a father figure, Joe was influenced by an uncle who went to college, and who inspired Joe to follow in his footsteps. “Having a relative who went that far and who believed in me is the reason I am where I am today,” said Joe, who is now an account executive with The HT Group. “The circumstances I grew up in didn’t define my future as much as having someone in my life who told me that I could do, and be, more.”

Joe is passing this knowledge and encouragement on to his Little Brother. “I’m seeing a growth in his self-confidence,” Joe said. “I saw the biggest breakthrough when we were working out because it was the first time Brian could really see that he was getting better, that he was getting stronger, and that his efforts were making a difference. Once he saw some progress, the value of his efforts, and his ability to change things, became real. Plus, it created some momentum. I hope that no matter where he goes in life, if there’s ever a door that seems beyond his grasp, he’ll take a shot at opening it. That he won’t accept limiting beliefs or circumstances.”

“The kids who enroll in BBBS’ program are hungry for attention and hungry to grow. They will listen and they will try. They just need a little push.”

“Mentoring is a living, breathing process that never ends…. A constant giving back and paying forward,” Joe concluded. “So far, I’ve learned three main things – one, I’ve gotten just as much out of being a mentor as I’ve given; two, we really need support from other people in the community to do this; and three, it’s amazing how little it takes to change somebody’s life for the better.”

Community Partners Support Our Matches

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas has always worked hand-in-hand with the community to ensure that children succeed. One group that exemplifies this collaborative spirit is BBBS Match Discount Partners – a group of businesses that offer their services for free, or at a reduced rate, for BBBS’ matches. These partners often assist with special events as well. By offering their support to BBBS, whether through products or services, BBBS’ community partners show how much they value our mission, the children in our community, and the importance of giving back.

“It’s such a positive partnership, especially with an organization like BBBS that’s doing the right thing for kids,” said Jeff Wilkinson, owner of PLAYlive Nation Austin; one of BBBS’ newest Match Discount Partners. Jeff’s business is an upscale video gaming lounge located at Lakeline Mall. PLAYlive Nation offers a safe social environment where matches can play video games and collectible card games like Magic and Pokémon.

“We’ve created a really family-friendly environment. We don’t allow cursing or yelling or screaming,” Jeff continued. “Bigs and Littles can feel comfortable coming in and having a good time together. It’s all about having fun.”

Jeff was referred to BBBS by a cousin who was a Big Sister. “She mentioned that Bigs are always looking for things to do with their Littles,” Jeff said. “It just seems like a win-win if we can offer something that helps matches.”

PLAYlive Nation is just one of the new activities and experiences that BBBS’ Match Discount Partners offer. Businesses and organizations contributing to the program include The Austin Aquarium, Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, The Bullock Texas State History Museum, Austin Zoo, the Loralee Foundation, Thinkery, Austin Rock Gym, and Rick’s Cleaners, among others.

One partner that has been involved with BBBS since 2010 is CiCi’s Pizza in Round Rock and New Braunfels. A family-owned franchise business, CiCi’s first connected with BBBS when their corporate offices supported a BBBS Bowl for Kids event. “I then thought I needed to do something individually with BBBS because it’s a great organization,” said Chad Goodwin, owner. “No one needs support more than a young man or woman who doesn’t have a role model in their life to help them find the right path. The fact that Bigs provide that help is a testament to the type of people they are, and that’s something we want to encourage.”

Chad has always ensured that his businesses have been community and kid-focused. “Kids and pizza go together,” Chad laughed. “One of my fondest memories is of going out to eat with my parents. At CiCi’s, we try to bring people together through food. It’s one of the reasons we decided to do the discount partnership with BBBS. We wanted to provide opportunities for matches to sit down and talk without any other distractions, and we didn’t want Bigs to be burdened with providing that meal.”

Having community businesses partner with BBBS is a huge help for the agency and it supports our mission. “The support from community members and discount partners allows our kids and their Bigs to participate in a wider array of activities that are fun, engaging and affordable,” said Christina Eisenlord, enrollment specialist and program coordinator. “It also provides our kids with opportunities to expand their worlds and to discover all that this city has to offer.”

Business partners recognize this as well. “Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Bigs are providing much more than I am providing by giving a free meal,” said Chad. “They are making an impact on young men’s and women’s lives. And those young people are going to grow up to be our customers, our employees, and contributing members of our community. We want to positively impact them.”

Though Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas is part of a national organization, our agency works at the local level. Working with community partners connects us to the community, benefits the children, families and volunteers we serve, and expands our circle of influence and impact in a way that is mutually beneficial. It is a win-win for our agency, our matches and those who partner with us; one that raises the tide for the community as a whole.

BBBS is always looking for new partners who are interested in supporting our mission. To learn more about participating in BBBS’ Match Discount Partner Program, contact Christina Eisenlord at ceisenlord@bigmentoring.org or 512-807-3611.

For a complete list of BBBS’ current Match Discount Partners, please visit our website at Bigmentoring.org/Volunteer/Match Discount Partners or click here

All In The Family

Big Brothers Big Sisters has always been about relationships, whether between Bigs and Littles, between the agency and the Littles, Bigs and families we serve, or between the organization and its donors and community partners. Like biological families, these relationships are built on trust, love, compassion and commitment. It’s no wonder then that such strong bonds often influence the family members of Bigs to become involved with the agency as well, creating impacts that affect not just individuals, but generations.

“I know the commitment to a Little requires flexibility, creativity and compassion,” said John Nelson, whose wife Claire is a Big Sister. “I’ve watched my wife develop strategies to keep her Little Sister entertained, engaged and challenged. It was really great seeing her excitement after she and her Little connected during a particular outing.”

Claire has been matched with her Little Sister, Lizette, for a year. “I do talk about the program sometimes, and John sees me leave each week for the outings, but I didn’t have to encourage him to get involved,” Claire said. “He’s the type of person who wants to make a difference. That’s why he joined the Austin Police Department. When I let him know that APD was partnering with BBBS, he took the initiative to become a Big himself.”

John is one of the first APD officers to sign up for Bigs in Blue, a new BBBS program that matches law enforcement officers with Littles. “The personal relationship between a Big and a Little provides a nice contrast to my professional work as a first responder,” John explained.

As an officer, John has brief contacts with youth in emergency situations. “Being a Big will allow me to develop a longer-lasting relationship with a young person and to have a significant impact,” he said.

“BBBS brings people from different parts of the community together and helps to build bridges and connections, which is important.” Claire added. “Relationships formed through BBBS shatter ‘us-vs-them’ thinking, encourage empathy, and foster deeper understanding. These things create a greater sense of community.”

Claire has experienced this in her own match. She and Lizette come from different backgrounds. In trying to understand and reconcile their differences, Claire said that she became a better listener. As a result, she and Lizette developed a bond that has helped Lizette open up.

“Having one family member pave the way and set an example as a Big definitely eases the anxiety other family members might have about taking on such a responsibility,” Claire continued. “It also allows other family members to see the benefits that a mentoring relationship can have for the Little and Big alike.”

Another Nelson family is sharing the BBBS experience through generations. Connie and Bill Nelson and their three children have been connected to BBBS for almost 15 years. Their relationship with the organization began when their oldest son, Bill Jr., became a Big Brother right out of college and was matched for 5 years.

“I had a great experience as a Big,” Bill Jr. said. “I enjoyed being a mentor and watching my Little Brother grow up.” This positive experience had an impact on Bill Jr.’s younger brother, John, as well.

“I hung out with Billy and his Little Brother when I was in college here and I learned a lot about BBBS then,” John explained. “I was impressed with the agency’s mission and success.”

Both sons suggested that their parents, Connie and Bill, get involved with the organization as well. “Mom and dad love supporting young people who have goals,” Bill Jr. continued. “BBBS seemed like it would be a natural fit for them.”

And, indeed, it was. Connie and Bill have not only been a Big Couple to their own Little Brother, Thomas, they have also been tireless workers and champions for the Ice Ball gala, BBBS’ largest fundraiser. Their son John has now joined the Ice Ball Host Committee as well.

“People might think that, due to our age difference, we wouldn’t have that much in common with our Little Brother,” Connie said. “Surprisingly, we do! We love to do things outdoors, go to movies, play mini golf, and ride in go karts.”

Thomas and John also “clicked” right away and spend time playing video games together and watching movies.

And it hasn’t just been the boys. The Nelson’s daughter, Kristen, has also been involved in match activities whenever the family has gotten together. “We’re Thomas’ Big Family,” Connie laughed. “He feels comfortable talking with all of us, and our experience with him and his family has enriched our lives and our relationships with one another.’

Sometimes just being around a family member’s match can prompt other family members to get involved, but usually it’s seeing the impact that the mentoring relationship has that motivates other family members to volunteer. This was the case for father and son Ron and Lawrence Nourzad.

“The best recruitment tool is the power of example,” Lawrence said. “Seeing my dad (Ron) and his Little Brother Zach get along so well was inspiring. When a match relationship is successful and both parties are enjoying their time together, it prompts those who are watching to want the same thing.”

Lawrence is now in the process of becoming a Big Brother, just like his dad. “I’ve yet to meet my Little, but the information I’ve received from my Match Support Specialist makes me think we’ll be two peas in a pod. It sounds like we have a lot in common,” Lawrence said.

“It’s definitely the power of example,” Connie agreed. “Bill and I learned from Billy’s very positive experience as a Big 20 years ago, and his siblings are learning from us. They may not all become Bigs, but I’m sure they will be involved and will continue to give back.”

“Getting to know Thomas and his family over the last 6 years has been a humbling, learning and inspiring experience for us as a family,” Connie said. “We have developed a deeper understanding of some of the challenges others in our community face. We’ve always believed that we gain much more from a relationship than we give, and that’s certainly been true of our relationship with Thomas. It’s a blessing to be part of his life.”

Traditions, togetherness and support. Mentoring is a gift that benefits not only Bigs and Littles, but those around them, creating a virtuous cycle that moves through generations and that, ultimately, impacts and strengthens the community as a whole.

Spotlight on Christina Eisenlord

She loves kids and believes in community. This year Christina Eisenlord celebrates 10 years of pursuing both of these passions as an enrollment specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas.

“My job is to interview and assess those coming into our program, from volunteers to family members to kids,” Christina said, “in order to make sure the program is a good fit for them. Then, with all of the information gathered during the interview and intake process, I work to make the best matches possible between new Bigs and Littles.”

It’s a responsibility Christina loves. “There are two things that keep me here,” she continued. “First, I love kids. I think they are amazing. I feel blessed to be able to be a part of their lives. They inspire me.”

“Second, I’m a big believer in community, and a strong community is built with strong kids,” she added. “Mentoring is a key component to building strong kids. I think BBBS helps kids become stronger members of the community.”

Christina takes the individual personalities and preferences of those she meets into account when forming a match. “The stronger the foundation a match has, the better the relationship will be,” she said.

Creating successful matches is not just Christina’s goal, it is one of her favorite things about her job. “I often hear stories of Littles whose behavior changed significantly after becoming part of our program,” she said. “For instance, several years ago a young man who entered our program was being disrespectful to those around him. He was having trouble managing his anger and was not doing well in school. I found a fantastic Big Brother for him and he is now treating his mom well, doing better in school, and being a better brother to his siblings. Stories like that motivate me. I know that mentoring works. Getting kids into positive mentoring relationships can make a world of difference for everyone involved.”

Even with its inspirational elements, the job has its challenges. One of the hardest for Christina is that of interviewing boys who want to have mentors, but not having enough men signed up as Big Brothers to match them with. The agency is continuously recruiting volunteers and raising funds to get as many children matched with Big Brothers and Sisters as possible.

The other challenge Christina experiences is that of being very involved with families and volunteers when they enroll with BBBS, but having less involvement with them once they are matched. “I only get to touch a part of their lives,” Christina said. “I get to interview these amazing kids, and then, when they’re matched with a Big and assigned their own match support specialist, I don’t see them as often.”

She works to make up for this by helping with monthly events held in BBBS’ new Youth Activity Center. “That’s when I get to see the kids and watch them interact with their Bigs,” Christina explained. “That’s always really fun.”

Christina is also part of BBBS’ Big Futures committee which is developing strategies to support Littles as they make the transition from high school to college and career.

She knows a thing or two about transitions herself since her father was in the military. “We lived in California, Texas, Japan and Michigan,” Christina said. She ended up attending college in Michigan where she received two degrees – one in social work and one in small business entrepreneurship. She tried working in the business world until she realized that her true calling was in social work and in helping kids, which is when she joined BBBS of Central Texas.

What does she do when she’s not working? “I’m a music freak,” Christina laughed. “It’s easy to catch me listening to music in my car, at my house, at my desk. I love rap and hip hop. And one of my favorite things is going dancing.” She also enjoys working on functional and creative projects around her house. As she says herself, she doesn’t get bored easily.