The Ride of a Lifetime: Kaden and Jennifer

Bigs often say that they get as much, if not more, out of their mentoring relationships as the Littles they mentor. A part of that can be attributed to the pleasure of watching their Littles grow up to experience new and exciting adventures. Big Sister Jennifer recently witnessed such a change when her Little Brother Kaden finally grew tall enough to be in the driver’s seat.

“The first time we went go-karting was in August of 2015,” Jennifer said. “Poor Kaden wasn’t tall enough to touch the pedals himself so he had to be whisked around the track by me (not cool). Then we went again this last April, stopping in on a whim. As we walked up to the go-karts I said, ‘I hope you’re tall enough little guy.’ With a deep breath of confidence, he walked up to the height stick and, luckily, he was just tall enough.”

The outing proved to be a memorable one. According to Jennifer, Kaden’s was the first go-kart in the lineup. As soon as he pushed the pedal down he raced forward and crashed straight into the retaining wall.  The attendant had to help him back onto the track.

“I yelled, ‘What happened?’” Jennifer said, “and he yelled back ‘Hey now, I’ve never driven before!’”  We raced around the track for two whole rounds since there were not a lot of people at the park that day.  I captured the best pictures of Kaden as we crashed into each other on the track. I will cherish those photos forever!”

Theirs has been a great match, though not a conventional one. “I am so thrilled with my relationship with Kaden,” Jennifer added. “My fear has always been that at some point he wouldn’t think it was cool to hang out with a 30-something-year-old woman, but that hasn’t happened. Kaden is always excited when we go on our outings. We talk about life, school, college, and the kind of job he might want to have when he grows up.”

Go-karting is just one of the outings the pair has had where Jennifer has emphasized that Kaden can do anything he sets his mind to. “Kaden is a smart, smart kid,” Jennifer continued. “He’s going to take this world by force as he grows because he’s not afraid to try new things. If an activity is not his thing, then at least he has attempted it and we check it off the list. On one of our first outings we went to a rock climbing wall. Kaden was nervous about climbing too high, but by the end of the day he was ringing the bell at the top and had the biggest smile.”

Jennifer recognizes the value of having a mentor when she thinks of her grandmother. “I spent my summers with her in New York City, and those months were the best in my life. She told me the most fantastic stories, and took me on little adventures all over the city,” Jennifer recalled. “She taught me the importance of giving children memories that last a lifetime.”

“I have seen Kaden grow and change, and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to experience life with him. We only have one shot to set kids up for success and to give them the memories and skills that childhoods should be filled with. Our time is special.”

Monthly contributions to BBBS make relationships like this possible.  Become a Game Changer.

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The Importance of Male Mentors: Building Futures

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas became a reality due to the work in the early 1960’s of several men who recognized the need for adult mentorship for boys without fathers and boys in the juvenile court system. The men realized that these boys lacked, and needed, positive male role models in their lives.

Fast forward 50 years and the need for male mentors is as great today as when the agency first began. For every male who signs up to be a mentor, two more are needed. Over 80% of the kids who are actively looking for Bigs are boys, and we are running out of men to match them with (currently only 15% of volunteer inquiries are from men). Male mentors are essential to helping boys achieve a positive sense of their own strengths and identities, whether it’s playing catch with a baseball or, as one match discovered, building a coffee table for the house.

“I’ve never gotten to build anything before. It was pretty fun. I thought I would just be attaching a few pieces (for the coffee table),” said Little Brother Keontray. “I didn’t know I was going to do everything.” And he does mean, everything. Keontray soon discovered he would be sawing, planing wood, attaching the pieces, and assembling the whole table. The result was a hand-made coffee table that is so sturdy it can bear the full weight of his Big Brother, Chris.

“When we were done I stood on the table to show him how solid it was,” Chris said. “Keontray couldn’t stop smiling. He kept saying ‘I can’t believe I made that, I can’t believe I made that.’  The table is in his living room where he sees it every day and it reminds him of this one solid thing that he has done. He tells me he’ll be sitting with his mom and she’ll smile and point at the table and say, ‘You built that!’”

Learning to build things is one of many life lessons Chris is sharing with his Little Brother – life lessons that come from his own experiences, but also from his dad. “My dad came from El Salvador and he is an electrical engineer,” Chris continued. “I used to watch him build stuff like alarm clocks or pieces for computers, and it was always fascinating to me. When I was 11 I started helping him around the house. We replaced a fence that was old and rotted. That experience taught me that hard work pays off. When you build something, you can put in hours and hours, plus a lot of sweat, and have something to show for it. I look at that fence now and say ‘My dad and I did that.’”

The skills of creating, of making something with your own hands, and of enjoying hard work are all things Chris wants to pass along.  “Keontray had a rough 2016. His grandfather passed away and that was tough. His dad got out of jail, but he’s never been in Keontray’s life, so to lose a male role model like his grandfather was hard,” Chris said.

Chris understands the importance of mentoring. “When I was Keontray’s age I had both parents and I still went through a lot – fighting at home with my mom, dealing with very bad relationships with friends,” Chris explained.  “I went through many of the same things he’s going through, but my family wasn’t really there for me when I needed to talk about problems or when I had general questions about the opposite sex or about relationships.”

Consequently, Chris’ favorite part of the match is being there for Keontray, listening to his questions, and discussing the answers. The two talk about things that have gone wrong and how those things can be made better the next time.

“I just look forward to seeing Keontray and hearing about all that has gone on during the week,” said Chris, who is a senior at Texas State University. “He’s as much my friend as he is my Little Brother.  Our relationship is not just about him coming to me for advice. Our relationship gives him the opportunity to form his own opinions and thoughts.”

Another skill Chris is teaching Keontray is that of cooking. The pair have made lasagna and enchiladas and Chris has even taught him how to season and prepare chicken. “That way, when he does go out into the world, he’ll be able to fend for himself,” Chris laughed.

In Chris’s mind, their relationship is all about providing Keontray with a blueprint and the tools for success. “In addition to passing on skills and values, male mentors give boys an idea of what they can become, what to aim for, and how to act in the world,” Chris said.

“It’s important for boys to have someone in their lives who can say, ‘It’s okay to not be fine. At one point things were not fine with me, but I got through it and here’s how I did it.’ Boys need men who can serve as examples, and who are willing to invest in, and listen to, them.”

Chris acknowledges that he and Keontray are from very different backgrounds. Chris is a white young man from the suburbs and Keontray is an African-American teenager who has lived in a lot of different neighborhoods. “Keontray has experienced racist slurs from white kids at school,” Chris added. “In our match, it’s really important for him to see that not everyone is like that and that people of different races can care about each other.”

Chris encourages other men to become Big Brothers as well. “If you have experienced anything,” Chris says, “it’s your duty to pass that experience along to someone who needs it.”

Chris believes this so strongly that he has decided to put his plans to enter medical school on hold in order to remain a mentor to Keontray until he graduates from high school. It’s no wonder the two say they will be brothers for life. “When I first met Chris it was awkward,” Keontray admitted, “but now I actually see him as family.”

Taking Risks: Audrey and Lizzet

Sometimes it’s something as simple as going ice skating that reveals and releases the inner potential of a child. Big Sister Audrey made that discovery when she took her Little Sister Lizzet to the local ice skating rink to experience an activity she’d enjoyed as a child. She saw Lizzet’s “can-do attitude” overcome uncertainty and help her skate across the ice without help.

“She’s such a great kid. She’s so curious about things in life,” said Audrey, who’s only been matched with Lizzet for a couple of months. “On one of our first outings we went to Starbucks because as an 8-year-old she’s very grown up and thinks she drinks coffee. So, we sat down and made a list of a lot of things we wanted to do. Ice skating is something I wanted to show her and Lizzet was excited to try.”

Lizzet’s willingness to try new things made the experience particularly meaningful for both of them. “Thank goodness that curiosity stuck with her even after she’d been struggling to learn to skate for almost an hour,” Audrey said.

The rink has a wide section at one end where there are no handrails to hang onto and skaters must venture across the ice on their own, or try to hang onto the wall or a helper. “The first few times we crossed that part Lizzet was nervous and held onto my hand the whole way, which frankly I just loved because she is the cutest,” Audrey laughed.

After that, Lizzet would let go of her Big Sister’s hand, fall, get help to get back up, and go again. “Finally, she felt ready to try this section on her own. She let go of my hand and it was just awesome,” Audrey recalled. “She made it to the middle of the ice and I could tell that she had started to panic. I told her that she could do it, to slow down and take a breath. She stopped, took a deep breath, and then she looked forward, and I could just see the fire in her eyes that said ‘I’m going to do this!’”

Making one little movement of her skate at a time, Lizzet made it across the ice and didn’t fall. “We had a party on the other side of that rink,” Audrey said. “People must have thought she’d landed an Olympic-type jump because I was jumping up and down and she was so excited. It was a really great moment, a moment of seeing her determination to succeed really pay off.”

“She was so afraid of falling,” Audrey continued. “One of the big discussions we had was that everyone falls, even those experienced skaters doing spins and jumps. One thing I constantly reiterated was that falling is not failing. If she never wanted to skate again that would be okay, but at least she would have tried it.”

Once Lizzet realized that falling was okay, she was willing to try skating by herself. “I can’t tell you that she learned to ice skate completely or that she’s going to want to go again,” Audrey said, “But I can tell you that by the end of our outing she was not afraid to try something new and risk being unsuccessful.”

Contributions to BBBS create relationships like this, changing children’s lives for the better, forever. Learn more about how you can support BBBS with a one-time or monthly gift here

To Protect and Serve

Veterans are notably resourceful and often self-reliant. There are times, however, when even America’s finest can use some extra help. Natasha Taylor, a single mom and Army veteran, found that support through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas and a Big Brother for her son.

“They’ve been matched since my son was in 9th grade,” Natasha said. “Hickman needed a male role model in his life. A father figure. He’s always been a good kid, but once he was matched with Sean, I saw a tremendous change. He was more positive. It was like a big weight had been lifted off him.”

Hickman’s father has not been in his life at all. “His father didn’t contact him on his birthday last week,” Natasha added. “Sean did.”

“One of the things I appreciate most is the time Sean spends with Hickman,” Natasha continued. “He’s gone to football games, basketball games, and wrestling matches. He’s been such a blessing to my family.”

The match does impact the whole family. Natasha is a single mom raising Hickman and a young daughter while working. She is also trying to advance her career by going back to college.

“Our match helps Natasha by providing Hickman with a male friend who, while older, is still close enough in age to understand what he’s going through,” Sean explained. “High school isn’t easy. You need people you can count on to be there for you regularly, and who understand and sympathize. Natasha has a lot on her plate. I’m happy to support Hickman and, if nothing else, provide a fun escape from the normal routine of high school life.”

Natasha is a 10-year army veteran who was medically and honorably discharged from the service. Following in his mom’s military footsteps, Hickman is enrolled in his high school’s ROTC program. He plans to join the Air Force upon graduation.

Veterans’ needs are unique. Recognizing this, BBBS offers mentoring services to the children of veterans. The agency also actively recruits veterans to serve as Big Brothers and Sisters.

“Members of military families are not always home due to trainings, deployments, duty assignments, field exercises and more,” said Saul Espinoza, a veteran himself and a BBBS enrollment specialist. “This can be particularly stressful. A mentor can provide friendship, as well as a sense of stability, security and trust. A Big Brother or Sister can serve as an additional resource and role model when a member of the family is away.”

Having a Big Brother in his life proved critical for Hickman when he experienced a racist incident at his high school – a comment from a follow ROTC member. “Hickman kept it to himself for about 3 months,” Natasha said. “When I found out about it, I got right on the phone with Sean.”

“Hickman and I discussed what had happened,” Sean said. “We talked about how unfair and unfortunate it is that racism exists. More than anything, I affirmed that he had done the right thing by not retaliating, and I told him I was proud of him, which I very much am. It would have been easy and understandable for Hickman to have lashed out, but he kept his composure and brought the incident to the attention of the proper authorities.”

According to Natasha, each outing Sean and Hickman have together just “steps it up” for Hickman. She laughs about the days Sean picks Hickman up from school. “Kids look at them and ask Hickman ‘Who is that?’ and he just says ‘My brother,’ and leaves it at that.”

“Because Hickman is African-American and Sean is Caucasian, the kids look at him and wonder what’s going on. But I’m glad Sean is not African-American because many people are all about their race and my children are not raised that way. We’re military, and in the service you see all races. I want my son to continue to like everybody.”

Sean sees himself gaining as much from the match as his Little Brother. “Hickman is a great guy. I enjoy hanging out and joking around with him, whether we’re just grabbing a quick bite to eat or going to a mall or arcade. He has an awesome sense of humor and we laugh constantly. He’s one of the most respectful people I’ve ever met. He thanks me and tells me he had a good time every time we hang out, and I can tell it’s sincere. I enjoy our time together.”

One event Natasha particularly remembers occurred after a trip she, Hickman, and her daughter had taken to Galveston. “On the trip Hickman saw a two-door BMW that is his dream car,” Natasha recalled. “He posed by the car and we took pictures. Then Hickman told Sean about it. Three weeks later Sean picked Hickman up in the exact same car. Hickman was shocked. It turns out Sean’s dad owned the same kind of BMW and Sean had borrowed it just to take Hickman for a ride.”

“Hickman came back from that ride beaming,” Natasha added. “When I say there’s been nothing but good from this match, I try not to tear up. I couldn’t ask for a better Big Brother for my son.”

Learning Together

The numbers tell an impressive story at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. Ninety-eight percent of BBBS’ Littles maintain or improve their grades in school, and 82.6% plan to attend college – almost twice the national average. Beyond the numbers and more important however, are the personal stories that support these facts – stories about matches like the one between Big Brother Cameron and his Little Brother Elian.

The pair have only been matched for about 10 months but there is already a strong bond between them. “I really didn’t know what to expect coming into this program,” Cameron admitted. “I was pretty nervous, but what surprised me was how quickly I became immersed and attached to Elian. After only a couple of hangouts, I genuinely began thinking of him as my younger brother. Granted, that’s not hard when you have someone as likable as Elian as your Little, but the depth of our match is far greater than I ever anticipated.”

Though Cameron is quick to deny credit for it, the fact that Elian’s academic performance has improved two letter grades since the match began is indicative of the positive impact of their relationship. “I’m incredibly lucky to be matched with someone who, when he puts his mind to something, goes above and beyond to get it done,” Cameron explained.

“That said, the importance of his education is always top of mind when we hang out together. We always spend the first part of our outings discussing how school is going, what’s going well for him, what’s challenging him, and anything else he might want to share about his day-to-day,” Cameron continued. “He wants to go to college, and I know he’ll do very well there. I just like to remind him of the importance of keeping his nose in the books if he’s going to do what he wants to do.”

One outing that reinforced Elian’s interest in college was a trip to see the 2016 U.T. vs. Notre Dame football game – a “nail-biter” of a contest. “Oh, it was unbelievable!” Cameron exclaimed.  “Elian had never been to a college football game before, so I made sure we got there a couple of hours early to walk around. I’ll never forget how many times he simply said, ‘I can’t wait to go to college.’”

Though that experience was exciting and eye-opening, it’s not the only educational experience Elian has had since becoming a Little Brother. “One of my favorite activities was rock climbing,” Elian said, “because it showed how we needed to rely on each other to succeed.”

In addition, since Elian is taking culinary arts classes in school, Cameron took him to a “How to Cook” workshop at Whole Foods. “It was great!” Elian said. “They showed me how to cut stuff and how to use the blender right. I learned how to make hummus. I love hummus now.”

Because of that experience, should Elian not get a basketball or football scholarship to college, he may turn his attention to culinary school and become a chef. He has an interest in owning a restaurant like his uncle does.

Elian and his siblings live in a single-parent household. Though there were male figures in his life, his mom, Bridget, felt that he needed a Big Brother. “He was at that teenage stage where he was not listening. He’d get angry. Since being matched, he’s become more positive and focused.”

“I was doing some stuff I shouldn’t have been doing,” Elian agreed. “I’d probably still be doing those things if it wasn’t for Cameron. He’s just such a cool guy. No matter what I’m going through, he’s so easy to talk to.”

“I think the world of Cameron,” Bridget said, “and so does everyone in our family.”

Meeting the rest of Elian’s family was a memorable experience for Cameron. “Elian and his mom were kind enough to invite me to their family reunion last year, and I had a blast!” Cameron said. “Family reunions are a foreign concept for me as I only have my siblings and parents, so I had no idea what I was getting into. After getting there and meeting everyone, my anxiety was completely washed away. Elian’s family was incredibly welcoming and the food was unforgettable. It was such a fun day. After that, I wanted to make sure Elian had a chance to meet my parents when they came to visit me in Texas. We had dinner together at The Olive Garden. Now, whenever my mom sends me a care package, she includes extra goodies for Elian too.”

Cameron decided to become a Big Brother because he wanted to give back to the community instead of focusing only on himself. He remembered how he had looked up to his older siblings, and he wanted to have the opportunity to be a role model for someone else. “Elian is a teenager and, while our experiences have certainly differed, there are still a lot of common themes that I can offer insight into.”

There are also some differences that can sometimes present challenges. “As much as I like to think I’m in touch with trends these days, I can’t help but feel like an old guy when Elian talks about what he and his friends are up to,” Cameron laughed. “High school has definitely changed since I was there, especially with all the technology and social media that are part of our culture these days. At the same time, a lot of the major aspects of Elian’s experiences are similar to things I was exposed to in high school.  Finding a way to communicate that without sounding outdated has been a unique, but fun, challenge.”

The educational benefits of this match work both ways. “The past ten months have exposed me to so many new experiences, and I’m very lucky to have an appreciative, kind, and fun Little Brother to share them with,” Cameron said. “When Elian tells me about his struggles, I want to help him. And when he shares good news with me, I’m genuinely proud of him and love helping him celebrate.”

Lately, there has been a lot to celebrate. In addition to having improved two letter grades in school, Elian recently received an academic award as well.

“Elian is an incredibly thoughtful, funny, and confident young man. He has the ability to light up a room with his wonderful personality, but at the same time, he possesses the maturity to ensure that those around him are taken care of. No matter what he chooses to do, I know he’ll do well,” Cameron concluded.

Spotlight on Adriana Adams

One of the first groups you’ll talk to if you want to sign up with BBBS, whether as a Little or a Big, is the Customer Relations Team. This group will help you get started on the path to being matched. The person who supervises this team is Adriana Adams.

A 5-year veteran of BBBS, Adriana began work at the agency as a Match Support Specialist. For a year now however, she has been the customer relations supervisor. She and her team are there to answer questions about the work BBBS does, to help people find out about resources, learn how to get involved, and determine the steps to take if they want to be part of the mentoring process.

“I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Texas at El Paso,” Adriana said. “After college, I started working at another non-profit and liked it, but I wanted to explore other career options.”

It was while exploring that she found BBBS and discovered that the agency was a good fit. “I knew I wanted to work at a non-profit and I liked the work BBBS was doing,” Adriana explained, “but I also really liked the people – the BBBS team. The agency also has good leadership.”

Adriana and her team are the first point of contact for people who want to volunteer to be Bigs and for those who want to find a mentor for their child. “Some people don’t have a lot of knowledge about BBBS. We help them understand how BBBS works, and what is involved in being in a match. We also help them with their applications,” Adriana continued. “Our work helps the process go faster and more smoothly.”

Helping is at the forefront of what Adriana does. “I really like helping the families for whom English is a second language,” Adriana said. “I also like talking to the volunteers. They are so excited and they want to make a difference. I have a lot of respect for their desire to do that and I want to make sure they know what to expect.”

“One of the challenges in my job is hearing about the difficulties some of the families we work with are facing,” Adriana admitted. “Every family’s situation is unique. They all have good reasons for wanting to have a mentor in their lives, and every child deserves to have a mentor.”

In her spare time, Adriana enjoys many hobbies. “I like photography, and I also take Salsa and Cumbia dance classes,” she said. She and her husband of 9 years also enjoy having friends over and fixing BBQ.

What’s So Special About $1,250?

If you’ve spent time around Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, you’ve probably seen or heard the number $1,250. It’s mentioned at Ice Ball, at Bowl for Kids, on our website, and in our printed materials. $1,250 is a big deal at BBBS. Why? Because $1,250 is what it costs to fund a mentoring relationship for one year.

But wait! Why does it cost money to match a child with a mentor if BBBS’ mentors are volunteers?

BBBS does use volunteer mentors as Bigs, but while it may seem possible to pair a child with a caring adult and have a mentoring relationship just happen, creating an effective match is not that simple.

BBBS spends a lot of time interviewing and pairing the right child with the right adult, nurturing the match between the child, the family and the volunteer, and supporting it with highly skilled, professional staff and programming. Quite simply, BBBS puts its money – its $1,250 –  where its mission is.

From the customer relations employee who answers inquiries about being a Big or enrolling a child in our program, to the enrollment team that conducts interviews and background checks, evaluates applicants, and puts matches together, to the match support specialists who reinforce and monitor these mentoring relationships, it’s this highly skilled, professional team that makes BBBS’ matches so successful.

“Our program staff are required to have Bachelor’s degrees in Social Work or a related field, and  employees receive additional training from our national office,” said Joe Strychalski, BBBS’ vice president of programs.  “That training, along with the sophisticated system and processes we use to monitor child safety, participant attitudes, a child’s academic performance and avoidance of risky behaviors, all set our agency apart. We work on lots of different levels, activities and strategies to help Bigs and Littles achieve positive results.”

“When a match is just beginning, we work on establishing effective communication between the volunteer, the child and the family,” said Diana Hernandez, match support supervisor. “At that point, our team is initiating a relationship between people who are strangers and it’s important to get things off on the right track.”

The quality of the relationship that develops forms the basis for a quality match. “Our work is all about what’s best for the child. Many of the children we work with face significant challenges in their personal lives and stability is important for their matches to be effective,” Diana continued. “Changing mentors because a Little and a Big didn’t bond well isn’t beneficial for that child.”

Consequently, match support specialists work to foster trust between the volunteer and the family as match outings are planned, often serving as a go-between for the volunteer and the guardian, especially when there are language barriers.

Specialists also keep volunteers up to date on dynamics within the family. BBBS works with many low-income families and when financial problems result in a disconnected phone or other issues that might make a match outing difficult, BBBS’ team members keep volunteers informed. Similarly, if there are issues with school work or external problems that impact the child and the parent needs the volunteer to know about them but doesn’t want to relay the information through the child, a match support specialist will help.

“We also coach Bigs on how to connect with Littles who are quiet or who don’t trust adults. We help volunteers and families address issues that come up, suggest activities related to interests Bigs and Littles share, and organize match events that allow Bigs and Littles to connect with other matches.”

Sometimes events occur not only in the Little’s life but in the Big’s as well, and BBBS’ match support specialists must work to keep the pair connected. “Our volunteers may get married, have a baby, get a new job or have a schedule change,” Diana said. “When these things happen, we help participants develop strategies to keep the match, and the relationship, working.”

It’s a lot to keep track of as each match support specialist manages an average of 85 – 90 matches – with each match involving 3 to 4 individuals. Specialists work on building and maintaining relationships with all of these individuals to keep them engaged, and to ensure that the match is truly benefitting the child.

To that end, specialists monitor each match on a regular basis. “During the first year, we talk with everyone in the match once a month,” Diana explained. “After that, we touch base with participants quarterly.”

The team also compiles reports, completes required match surveys, provides information for grant reporting, implements workplace mentoring for a local middle school and high school, coordinates monthly enrichment activities and outings, and offers a scholarship program for Littles.

All of these activities, combined with the care, expertise and experience BBBS’ staff members bring to their work, produce life-changing impacts for children, volunteers, family members and the community as a whole.

To make this kind of difference, BBBS relies on funds raised through events, grants, and individual contributions.

“People often assume that there’s no cost associated with our services, or that funds for our work are  covered by the government. Neither is true,” said Brent Fields, BBBS’ CEO. “There are costs associated with what we do, and we don’t have any sort of automatic funding source.  And, unlike many great nonprofits, we don’t offer a fee-for-service product. We don’t charge for what we do. There’s no membership or participation fee for the year-round services we provide.

“While $1,250 may sound like a big number, the truth is that many people spend more than this on coffee over the course of a year. For this same amount of money, we can put a child on the path to success. And, as that child goes on to attend college, get a living wage job and give back to the community, the return on this investment is enormous,” Brent added.

For BBBS $1,250 is a magic number.

It’s the cost to fund a match for a year, but the benefits of that match are priceless.