Life Lessons: Ellen and Montse

Together they’re going to break the cycle. Little Sister Montse is going to be the first in her family to finish high school, with her Big Sister’s help. It’s a goal that has faced more than one challenge as Montse has moved to two new schools in the past two years.

“The first move was difficult, but Montse was younger and she adapted quickly,” Big Sister Ellen said. “But the second move occurred right before her freshman year of high school. It was a shock because she was set to go to the school where her friends were going. She found out a few days before school started that she was going to be moving to a charter school that had different rules, that she would have to wear a uniform, and that she didn’t quite “click” with the people there.”

Ellen helped Montse focus on the positive aspects of the move and talked with her about her concerns. “I talked with her a lot. It’s definitely been harder for her at this new school, but she will come out on top,” Ellen remarked. “Montse’s a wonderful person. We have goal-setting sessions once in a while and her number one goal is always to graduate from high school. It’s very important to her.”

Part of that motivation comes from hanging out with her Big Sister. “I don’t think she would have had the support to do as well as she’s doing in school without a Big Sister,” Ellen admitted. “It’s not my telling her what to do. It’s just hanging out with me and knowing that I went to college and that I make decisions for myself.” Having Ellen as a role model has helped Montse avoid making the same choices her female relatives made when they dropped out of school.

“Doing something different is hard. It raises a lot of questions and uncertainty, but she is persevering,” Ellen said. “Montse is very artistic and wants to pursue her interest in special effects makeup. I have a movie producer friend who has a studio for that type of thing and we’re going to take a tour.”

Special activities like this and other outings with her Big Sister provide Montse with positive ways to escape the stresses of her day-to-day world. “Technically, she’s homeless. Her family is living with her aunt and cousins, and I know that’s hard. She shares a room with two other girls which is not conducive to getting homework done,” Ellen added. “We take breaks by going hiking, walking dogs, and volunteering.”

It’s this time together and the small things in their relationship that seem to have the biggest impact. “Things that I don’t think are of importance, Montse learns from and internalizes. She sees that even the small decisions I’ve made in my life have made a difference and impacted my happiness, and she emulates that,” Ellen said. “But Montse also teaches me new things every single time we meet. I’ve grown exponentially because of her influence on me.”

“I work for a non-profit and we do good things for lots of people, but I never understood the importance of making an impact on one person’s life so deeply until I became involved with BBBS. Realizing that the smallest things I do or say have such a huge impact on someone else – that’s why I’ve done this for 3 years and it’s why I will never stop being Montse’s Big Sister,” Ellen concluded.

“People want to save the world, but I think helping one person is so much more powerful. I can’t save the world, but I can help Montse change hers… and that’s significant.”

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

Exploring Careers With Facebook

Bigs and Littles had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with Facebook employees, learn about their jobs, and tour their downtown Austin offices at a recent Big Brothers Big Sisters ‘Sister 2 Sister’ event. Matches got a glimpse of the daily experience of working for the internet giant, along with career and life skills education.

The outing was arranged by Match Support Specialist Lauren Dolan, whose friend Christina is a Facebook employee.

“I wanted to create an event focused on career exploration,” Lauren explained. “I chose Facebook because I wanted to give our Little Sisters a chance to see that there are women like them working in these amazing jobs at tech companies. Women are underrepresented in the tech industry. I felt it was important to expose the girls to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), for them to meet women who are working in these areas, and for them to find out how these women got into the positions they have today. It’s important for our Little Sisters to know that these kinds of careers are a possibility for them.”

“When Lauren contacted us about holding an event for BBBS, we wanted to be involved,” Christina said. “Facebook is super interested in engaging with the community and connecting with Austin youth. Plus, we wanted to share what we’ve learned, since we were all middle schoolers once too.”

Many matches were interested in connecting with the Facebook group as well. “My Little Sister is an avid Facebook user and I thought this would be a great opportunity for her to think about her career and academic goals in a fun setting,” Big Sister Wajiha explained.

“I wanted to give my Little the opportunity to see the Facebook office and to hear a panel of women discuss their professional experiences,” Big Sister Anna added. “The panel discussion was the biggest hit for her. She loved hearing from these women because they were all so different. She appreciated the differences in their backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences.”

The matches had an opportunity to pick up some snacks and beverages before heading into a large conference room for the panel discussion. Gwen, Facebook’s head of entertainment industry and the panel moderator, explained that she was going to focus on information she wished that she had known when she was the same age as BBBS’ Littles.

The panel members, Gwen, Kelsey, Guadalupe, Mefah, and Emily, began by telling the Littles about their backgrounds, the individual journeys that led to them to work for Facebook, and their current roles. They also highlighted the strengths and skills they use in their jobs every day.

“It’s so important for young women of color to see a diverse group of women they can identify with,” Wajiha remarked. “My Little Sister saw women of color who have succeeded and who are making way for the next generation of young women to succeed. Each panelist provided information on how they navigate working in an environment that is perceived to be dominated by men.”

The last question the panel addressed – If you could go back in time, what would you say to your 13-year-old self? “My Little really liked that question,” Anna laughed. “And she liked hearing that it’s okay to fail. I think she gained a sense of hope from the information these women presented.”

Key take-aways included:

  • It’s okay to fail – failures are learning opportunities.
  • Dream big, but realize dreams can change.
  • Don’t hate your parents or role models – respect them. They are looking out for you and want you to be your best self.
  • Speak up and be bold in standing up for yourself.
  • It’s okay to be different.
  • Show leadership skills – be willing to take on projects.
  • Be friendly – learn to have conversations.
  • Do your homework and show up prepared.
  • Think about what you bring to the table that is different. What do you bring that no one else can?
  • Learn what you are passionate about – it is easier to take risks then.
  • Get out of your comfort zone – if it’s not a little scary, you are not pushing yourself.
  • Seek out mentors – you can have more than one and they can come from anywhere, be a guiding resource, and offer another point of view.

“This session was inspiring and it gave my Little new perspective,” Big Sister Katherine said. “She got out of her shell a bit, asked questions during the tour, and learned about functions within the tech field that she didn’t realize existed.”

The Facebook staff gave BBBS’ matches a complete tour of the offices which included some quirky murals, a large lounge, snack areas, balconies with views of downtown Austin, and game areas. “Facebook’s offices are like a kid’s hangout. The environment is like a playground,” Big Sister Anna commented. “If kids decide to go into the tech field, this is the type of setting they will work in versus traditional cubicle work stations. I wanted my Little to see that.”

The matches really enjoyed the whole experience. “It was a powerful event,” Anna said. “It was an experience that will resonate with these girls throughout their lives.”

The Facebook staff also hope the event will stay with the Littles for a long time. Kelsey, a Facebook Community Operations Specialist, said, “In six years, we hope to see you back here.”

“We are so thankful to Facebook for hosting us and for putting together such an excellent panel of women to speak with our matches. Having women from a company like Facebook, that is recognizable to everyone, talk about how their skills and education got them where they are today really made an impression on the girls,” Lauren concluded.

Big Brothers Big Sisters plans social, educational, and recreational events for matches throughout the year. These activities provide Bigs and Littles with opportunities to interact with other matches, have new experiences, develop new skills, and deepen their relationships.

In addition to regular Sister 2 Sister and Brother 2 Brother events, other special match activities include Open Nights in the Youth Activity Center at BBBS’ new mentoring center, Hobie Day, a day of sailing on Lake Austin, Adventure Quest, as well as an annual fall carnival and holiday party.

Learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters and sign up for our newsletter at www.BigMentoring.org

 

Spotlight on Candace Bunkley: BBBS’ Scholarship Program Coordinator

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Big Brothers Big Sisters is mission-focused. It’s no wonder that many of the agency’s staff members are as well. Candace Bunkley, BBBS’ Scholarship Program Coordinator, wanted to work for an organization that “had a mission and was doing a good job.”

Candace previously worked for a healthcare law office as an office administrator. After an internet search, however, she found the organization she wanted to be part of: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. She began with a part-time position in customer relations before moving into her current role overseeing BBBS’ Scholarship Program.

“My primary role is to receive and process scholarship applications from Littles,” Candace explained. “I process their paperwork and help them understand the requirements for BBBS’ Scholarship Program.”

And that’s just the beginning. Candace also oversees the program’s daily operations which include sending scholarship payments to various colleges, tracking program spending, and coordinating BBBS’ annual scholarship awards ceremony.

In addition, she provides general scholarship and college information to students. “I love hearing what our Littles are majoring in and what schools they’re going to,” Candace continued. “And the fact that they understand the requirements of the different universities and of our program, and that they are keeping up with those responsibilities, is a testament to how well they’re succeeding in school.”

Helping Bigs, Littles and families understand the requirements for enrolling in college can be challenging. “If students can’t get enrolled in time because they don’t have everything completed, I can hear the disappointment in their voices,” Candace admitted. “But I remind them that their BBBS scholarship will be available whenever they are set to enroll. Overall, I’m really impressed with how well our students stay on top of things. They are really doing a great job.”

Candace’s goals for the Scholarship Program include increasing the number of Littles who access their scholarships each semester, and helping them connect with other educational resources in the community.

Candace doesn’t work all the time. She enjoys being involved in her church, Austin Stone, and taking classes through Austin Community College. She also spends a lot of time with her dog, Dolly, a miniature Maltipoo.

“Our Bigs work so hard at getting their Littles to dream big and to think about their goals for the future,” Candace continued. “I think my favorite part of the Scholarship Program is helping Littles achieve those goals and supporting the work our Bigs are doing.”

Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette on Building Capacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBBS Presents Scholarships to Over 400 Students

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Encouragement and possibilities were the themes as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas promised and awarded almost $900,000 in college scholarships to more than 400 students at the agency’s 30th Annual Promising Futures Scholarship Ceremony on Saturday, June 11. Held at the For the City Center, the event featured Mayor Steve Adler as the keynote speaker. He addressed his remarks to an audience made up of students, families and mentors.

“I am a first-generation college student,” Adler told the graduates, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college. He congratulated the students on their academic achievements and encouraged them to look to their successes and to believe in themselves when the going gets tough.

Over $410,000 in scholarship funds were made available to BBBS’ graduating seniors, and younger students were promised $480,000 in funds to be used when they graduate from high school.

The scholarships will be used at a variety of institutions and vocational schools including the University of Texas at Austin, Berklee College of Music in Boston and Bennington College in Vermont. This year’s graduates are pursuing fields including nursing, music, veterinary medicine, business, computer coding, physics, biology and medicine.

“It is incredible to see the positive impact BBBS’ Scholarship Program has on our kids. It helps them achieve feats many of them never thought they could, and it opens the door to new opportunities.” said Brent Fields, CEO, Big Brother Big Sisters of Central Texas.

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Students walked across the stage to receive their awards and posed for photos with dignitaries following the ceremony. Lauren Petrowski of Fox 7 Austin was the emcee for the event, and speeches were given by Mayor Steve Adler, BBBS of Central Texas CEO Brent Fields, BBBS Executive Board Member Jamie Avila and former Little Sister Keyanna Maxwell.

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. Since 1986, Big Brothers Big Sisters has promised nearly $5 million in college scholarships to 2,500 Little Brothers and Sisters in Central Texas.

For more information about BBBS’ Scholarship Program, go here

A Gift for Learning

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Sometimes you just need to be given a chance. Sometimes you need to be given a lifeline. For Demetria Wiley, that vital support came from Big Brothers Big Sisters and the agency’s scholarship program.

Demetria grew up in a family where her mother was abused and she herself experienced abuse as well. “As a child, I had to struggle. I was really depressed,” Demetria said. “My mom always tried to do things to keep my sister and me happy and away from any type of stress.”

However, Demetria’s mom had troubles of her own. She suffered from mental illness and spent time in the state hospital while her children went through foster care. “It was a tough life,” Demetria recalled. “I was one of those kids who wasn’t supposed to make it.” And at one point, it seemed as though she really wouldn’t make it. Demetria attempted suicide – sparking her family to take action. That was when Demetria’s mom signed her up for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“I got a Big Sister and I was so excited,” Demetria said. “My Big Sister was my best friend. She treated me like family, even though we were not the same race – she was Caucasian and I was African-American. We did everything from bike riding to going to the movies together. She helped me with my homework, and she encouraged and supported me.”

Despite her Big Sister’s support and encouragement, Demetria didn’t think she had a chance of pursuing higher education. “I never thought I’d go to college because we moved around so much,” Demetria remarked. “I attended 9 or 10 different schools as a child and always had to catch up on schoolwork, but even so I managed to get straight A’s.”

Due to her academic success, educators offered her an opportunity to attend St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, a private college preparatory school in Central Texas, as part of a special program. She would be one of the first African-American students, a thought that frightened her. “I thought, ‘No, I can’t handle that,’” she said. “I turned it down and figured that I’d never get another opportunity to attend college or to receive any other scholarships.”

Despite her doubts, Demetria soon discovered, that she could get another scholarship through BBBS, one that would help her pay for college. “That was such a gift,” Demetria said. “It helped me so much by furthering my education. Getting that scholarship showed me that I had the ability to do anything I wanted to in life. And with that motivation I thought ‘I’m not gonna stop here!’”

And Demetria didn’t stop. She earned not only one degree, but two. She currently has a Bachelor’s Degree in Healthcare Management, a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Resource Management and she is working on a Master’s Degree. While pursuing her Bachelor’s degrees, she joined the National Guard, where she served for 10 years. She is currently a Sergeant and works on weekends. Her full-time job is with Austin’s airport where she works in Human Resources.

Her successes, determination and education have inspired her sister, her daughter and her son to attend college as well. Both of Demetria’s children have also been enrolled in the BBBS program and both are due to receive scholarships this year.

“The BBBS program is so important. It’s something kids can utilize when they have absent parents, when they don’t have self-esteem, when they need motivation, and when they need something to help them get where they need to be in life,” she said. “It’s very difficult when you’re a kid and you’re struggling and you don’t have any idea what your future might be.”

“And the Scholarship Program makes such a difference,” Demetria continued. “Receiving a scholarship gave me the motivation to pursue my academic goals. It also gave me the sense that my dreams, and I, were worthwhile.”

“Kids need to know that there are programs out there that can help them; that they can use to get ahead. And that, despite really hard times, they can make it if they try.”

“My Big Sister, BBBS and BBBS’ Scholarship Program gave me help when I needed it and now I want to use the opportunities and experiences I have had to give back.” Demetria said.

Spotlight on John MacNary

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As high school graduations occur throughout the region, it’s only natural to think about the next step for many of these students – college. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas also thinks about, and plans for, this next stage in the educational process and that is where BBBS’ scholarship program manager, John MacNary, plays a major role.

In 1986, a Central Texas family created an endowment to start a scholarship program that would benefit BBBS students and further their educational goals. John oversees this program by identifying students who are eligible for BBBS’ scholarships and getting them enrolled.

“I was a first-generation college student,” John said, “so I try to help others onto that path. Applying for college can be a complicated process. There are a lot of steps.”

To help students navigate these steps John works to make students aware of all the resources that are available to them. “I want to make college more accessible,” John added. “There are a lot of students who don’t even think about college because they need to work to help their families. I want students in our program to know that college is an option and that we are here to help.”

“Big Brothers Big Sisters is excited to invest in young people,” John said, “and our scholarship program strengthens our agency, and our Littles’ experiences with us, as a whole. Students are required to remain matched with their Big Brothers or Sisters for over a year to qualify for a scholarship through BBBS.”

In his down time John enjoys the downtown Austin scene and discussing politics. He also enjoys an unofficial role as a tour guide for friends when they travel to New York City. But his major focus is still BBBS. “I just love the opportunity to help kids,” John said.