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.”

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.

BBBS’ 2017 Promising Futures Scholarship Ceremony

“You can never have too much education.” That was one of the central themes at Big Brothers Big Sisters’ 2017 Promising Futures Scholarship Ceremony. Held June 17 at Austin Community College’s Eastview campus, the event featured Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University, as the keynote speaker.

Those in attendance included Littles graduating from high school and receiving their scholarships, and fourteen-year-old Littles receiving the promise of a scholarship if they, in turn, promise to finish high school. The audience was also made up of Big Brothers and Sisters, family members, board members, community partners and members of BBBS’ staff.

“BBBS’ mission totally parallels my own personal mission and passion,” said Dr. Burnette. “The agency is committed to providing children with professionally supported mentoring relationships that change their lives for the better, forever. The key word is ‘forever,’ because once someone invests in you, that investment stays with you.”

Dr. Burnette provided ten ‘Rules of Life’ to help students as they pursue their respective paths. She encouraged students to be life-long learners; to be true to themselves; to read, read, read; to travel at every opportunity; to be well spoken; to dress for success; to make wise choices regarding the people they spend their time with; to take care of themselves physically; to have fun; to remember that they can never have too much education; and to nurture their individual spirits.

“I want you to be you, and to recognize that your education is an investment in yourself,” Dr. Burnette added. “I encourage you to continue the pursuit of your dreams. Your gifts are inside you, and they will propel you anywhere you want to go. Your involvement with BBBS and with your mentors has started something big. Now it’s up to you to take it to a whole new level.”

It was a day of celebration for BBBS’ Littles who have worked so hard to reach this important moment and milestone in life.

“I enjoyed meeting the families and talking with our matches, some of whom have been matched for 9 years,” said Candace Bunkley, BBBS’ scholarship program coordinator. “I love hearing where these students are going to go to school and what they want to study, and knowing that BBBS is, and has been, a part of their journeys.”

The scholarships students received will be applied to a variety of institutions and vocations. This year’s high school graduates are attending schools from Texas A&M, to Blinn College and Angelo State University, among others. Some of the career paths they plan to pursue include medicine, bio-medical engineering, architecture, interior design, and film production.

BBBS awarded and promised over $930,000 in scholarship funds to Little Brothers and Sisters this year. Students who are at least 14 years old and who have remained matched for one year or longer are promised scholarships upon high school graduation. Graduating seniors who have met these requirements and who have chosen to enroll in a two or four-year college, university, or accredited trade or technical school, are eligible to receive scholarship awards of $2,000 – $4,000.

“This is one of my favorite events of the year,” said Brent Fields, CEO of Big Brother Big Sisters of Central Texas. “It is powerful to see the impact BBBS’ scholarship program has on the lives of these young people. The program provides opportunities that many thought they’d never have.”

Littles crossed the stage to receive their promise medals and scholarship certificates from BBBS’ Foundation Board Chair Loraine Brown. Lauren Petrowski of Fox 7 Austin was the emcee for the event. BBBS of Central Texas CEO Brent Fields provided opening remarks, and Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University, gave the inspirational keynote address.

Congratulations to this year’s scholarship recipients and promisees, and to their families and Big Brothers and Sisters.

For more information about Big Brothers Big Sisters’ scholarship program, contact Candace Bunkley at 512-807-3642.

See our 2017 Promising Futures Scholarship Ceremony video here

See photos from the scholarship ceremony here

 

About the Scholarship Program: In 1986, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas received a contribution from an anonymous Central Texas donor to establish a program encouraging Little Brothers and Sisters to complete high school and pursue post-secondary education. The program was the first of its kind throughout the nearly 350 BBBS chapters.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas Receives 2017 National Board of the Year Award

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas is the winner of the national Board of the Year award given by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA). This is the second time the local agency has won the award in the last five years. The top local agencies and agency boards were recognized during BBBSA’s 2017 National Conference held June 25 – 28 in San Diego, California. Receiving the award for BBBS of Central Texas were Board Chair Carlos Barbosa and Vice President of Programs Joe Strychalski.

“I am so proud and honored to lead a fantastic and engaged executive board that does whatever is needed to support the agency’s mission,” said Barbosa. “Of course, none of what has been achieved is possible without a dynamic CEO, Brent Fields, and an amazing agency staff that does the real work every day. This award validates all of the agency’s exceptional work on behalf of children and families in Central Texas!”

Agency boards have a profound impact on the success of the agencies they serve, raising funds, sharing the organizations’ good work, influencing decision-making, and shaping programming. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s Nationwide Leadership Council selected the winner of the 2017 Board of the Year award based on growth in the number of children served, quality and length of mentoring matches, and growth in agency revenue.

“Receiving this award is a great honor,” said BBBS CEO Brent Fields. “Thank you to our amazing Board of Directors, to our volunteers, and to supporters who continue to invest in this transformational mission.”

BBBS of Central Texas was also a finalist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s Agency of the Year award. Earlier this year the agency won the National Gold Standard Award, one of only 16 Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies across the nation to receive the recognition.

Image (L to R): Rudy J. Baldoni, National Board Chair BBBS of America; Joe Strychalski, VP of Programs BBBS of Central Texas, Carlos Barbosa, Board Chair BBBS of Central Texas, Pam Iorio, President and CEO BBBS of America

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.

Learn more at www.gamechangersaustin.org

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.”