Spotlight on Joe Strychalski

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas provides, coordinates and supports one-to-one mentoring relationships for almost 1,000 children each year. BBBS’ program team consists of 19 staff members who work with each child, family member and volunteer to make and monitor these match relationships on an ongoing basis. Managing this activity for BBBS is Joe Strychalski, the agency’s Vice President of Programs.

“I’ve always had a heart for working with underserved youth,” said Joe.

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, and raised in Indiana, Joe came to BBBS of Central Texas from Dayton’s BBBS agency. He’d worked for a small youth ministry where he helped to establish and manage a thrift store, and then worked at a bank before joining his local BBBS agency as a youth enrollment specialist, putting Bigs and Littles together.

“I love the BBBS organization and its mission,” said Joe. “After I joined BBBS in Dayton, I started looking for opportunities to gain new skills and take on new responsibilities.” Some of these new skills involved working on the development side of the agency with fundraising and events.

“I wanted to do even more at the agency, so I went back to school to get my MBA,” said Joe. After that, he took on additional responsibilities managing the agency’s finances and handling the organization’s human resources activities.

One day, a friend at the national BBBS office called Joe to tell him about the Vice President of Programs job opening in Central Texas. After visiting the city and going through a lengthy interview process, Joe and his wife Carol made the move from Ohio.

BBBS of Central Texas is a larger agency than the one in Dayton, but Joe still oversees a variety of functions – customer service, enrollment, match support and the agency’s scholarship program.  “BBBS is a fun place to work,” said Joe. “We have great leadership, a new building, and I have an amazing team. Our staff are always looking for ways to improve. Their enthusiasm and the heart they bring to our mission are amazing.”

Joe’s favorite part of his job involves seeing the impact that mentoring makes. “The first meeting of a match, the introduction of a Big and a Little, is just the coolest thing,” said Joe. “The Little is super-excited, awkward and nervous, and the same is true of the Big. The new Big is ready to launch into a new relationship and have an impact on a child and their family, but they are also nervous. The program staff get to see Bigs and Littles interact, find shared interests, and discover how exploring life together can make a difference. We also get to interact with matches that have been together 8 or more years and that truly feel like real brothers and sisters. Seeing the ways that mentoring benefits children, families and volunteers, and helping to create and strengthen these relationships, is really rewarding.”

Joe and Carol, and their dog, a 90-lb Goldendoodle named Murray, are enjoying the Austin area, especially all of the outdoor activities available. Joe has also become the agency’s BBQ connoisseur. Once a month he organizes staff visits to BBQ restaurants in the Central Texas area.

BBBS’ 2018 Bigs of the Year

 

An experienced and trusted adviser, someone who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time” –  that is the dictionary definition of a mentor. But at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, our mentors, our Bigs, are that and so much more as they build deep friendships that change children’s lives for the better.

Consequently, when National Mentoring Month arrives in January, BBBS is ready to celebrate and honor the amazing volunteers who give their time and energy to help children succeed.

“As we enter a new year, it is only appropriate to pause and consider the importance of volunteerism at BBBS. National Mentoring Month is a good reminder that we can only realize our vision of helping children achieve success in life because of the service of our volunteer mentors – our Big Brothers and Sisters,” said Brent Fields, CEO of BBBS of Central Texas.

“This past year our Bigs contributed almost 60,000 hours of volunteer service to our Littles.  You can’t put a price tag on that kind of contribution and it’s critical to everything we do.  On behalf of our staff, board, donors, and about 1,000 kids served last year – I want to say a big “THANKS” to everyone serving (past, present or future) in this transformational way!”

“National Mentoring Month is a great time for BBBS,” said Joe Strychalski, Vice President of Programs. “Not only are we able to thank and recognize our amazing volunteers, but it’s also a terrific opportunity for us to share more about the power of mentoring, spread awareness of all the work that BBBS is doing in the community, and recruit new volunteers for the program!  January is by far our busiest time for inquiries from both prospective parents and volunteers, which is great – we are always in need of new volunteers, especially men and bilingual Bigs!”

During National Mentoring Month BBBS recognizes its volunteers by announcing the agency’s 2018 Central Texas Bigs of the Year.  Winners at the local level go on to be considered for statewide, and then possibly national, Big of the Year honors. BBBS of Central Texas’ 2018 Bigs of the Year are Big Sister Maggie Johnson and Big Brother Nicholas Johnson (no relation). Maggie Johnson has also been recognized as the 2018 Big Sister of the Year for the state of Texas.

Maggie & Kirida

“When I met my little sister, Kirida, in 2012, she was initially pretty shy with me,” said Maggie. “So, we spent most of our time together in the beginning just doing fun activities to try to help her relax and have a space where she didn’t have to worry so much.”

Kirida was struggling at school when she first met her Big Sister and was often in trouble for fighting due to bullying from other students. She was very reactive, struggling to manage her emotions, and the other students knew she could be taunted into fighting. She was suspended from school almost weekly.

“I could tell that Kirida was bright and had amazing potential,” said Maggie, “because despite the trouble that she frequently was in at school for her behavior, she consistently made really good grades. Since academics were not a problem, I knew that we had to work on the other things that she needed to successfully reach her goals of graduating from high school and attending college. My focus became that of helping her increase her self-esteem, critical thinking skills, and coping strategies.”

“When I was having a rough time we would just sit in Maggie’s car in front of my house and map out my day. We would talk about how I felt and positive ways to react,” said Kirida. “Maggie was the main reason I kept from fighting during those times. Everyone told me that I would wind up dead or in jail, but Maggie was the one who asked, “What is the root of all of this? What and who are you angry at?”

“When I was battling depression, one thing that always kept me from self-harm was Maggie’s comment, “There are people out here who love you, whether you know it or not, and who are willing to help,” Kirida continued.

The two became much like actual sisters as Maggie offered support and encouragement, eventually helping her Little Sister find her niche on the school’s wrestling team. Being part of the team provided Kirida with a physical outlet that helped her manage her emotions while gaining confidence and self-control.

Kirida’s mom was working two jobs and going to school at night, so it was Maggie who often took Kirida to and from practices. Both women were standing side-by-side, however, as Kirida walked across the stage at her high school graduation. Kirida recently completed her first semester at Texas A&M as a first-generation college student.

“Our match gave her someone to support her and to cheer her on when things got tough,” said Maggie. “Kirida is one of the most resilient and determined young women I know and she has been an inspiration and a wonderful addition to my life. She has told me that she feels like we are “family” and always will be. I feel the same way and think that we will be connected for a very long time.”

Nicholas and Tiy

“I can still remember my first meeting with my Little Brother Tiy (short for Mi’Tiy) who was 11,” said Nicholas. “Honestly, I didn’t really know what to talk about. I’d never hung out with an 11-year-old for longer than 10 minutes before. I was nervous and awkward, but Tiy either didn’t notice, or didn’t care – or it might have been the shortest match in history.”

Throughout the next months and years Nicholas learned that he didn’t need to dazzle Tiy with brilliant conversation or flashy activities, he just needed to be there. “With both of his parents working multiple jobs to support him and his 4 siblings, he spent a lot of time at home and didn’t get a chance to do much. After I figured that out, I stopped stressing about outings as much. I realized that I didn’t need the “perfect” activity, I just needed to show up,” said Nicholas.  “The most memorable, random activity we ever did together was going to Dick’s Sporting Goods and walking around the store for over an hour. We went into each section and just played with the equipment: baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse. We even got to use their golf simulator!”

As the pair’s relationship grew, Tiy became more open and asked more questions about complicated topics. “It took some time, but I discovered that I didn’t need to have all the answers; sometimes I just needed to listen,” said Nicholas.

Being there and listening impacted Tiy in a deep way.  “I don’t know where I would be if Mr. Nick was not in my life,” said Tiy.  “He is always there for me at my football games, when I need help understanding something at school, or even if I just have a question about something.”

“Thank you, Mr. Nick, for your time, for all the new activities we have done together, for encouraging me and helping me think about the future.  Thank you for being my Big Brother… for real.”

Mentoring Month is a time for all of us to remember and thank our mentors – people who took the time to be there for us, to guide us and to make a difference in our lives forever. At BBBS we are proud to continue this rich tradition of giving back, and we are honored to work alongside the Bigs, children and families who enrich our lives – and each other’s – every day.

Be The Reason a Child Succeeds

The kids in our community have BIG dreams. They want to make a difference in the world. You can help them do just that. Your tax-deductible year-end gift can put a child on the path to success… but time is running out.

We have 600 children waiting to be matched with mentors who can help them achieve their dreams and goals for success. Every gift matters.

It takes only moments to give, but the impact of your gift can last a lifetime.

Give Now 

The first $25,000 in gifts received by December 31st will be matched.

SARA wants to be an artist. She loves mixing colors and hopes to one day have a painting hanging in a major gallery.

 

 

 

 

RICO wants to become a lawyer so that he can be an advocate for those in need.

 

 

 

 

 

TYRIN wants to be a neonatal nurse who cares for children and infants in our community.

 

 

 

 

 

MALIK wants to become an engineer who designs robots that explore outer space.

 

 

 

 

 

ALYSSA wants to be a veterinarian with a clinic that helps animals of all kinds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TRINITY wants to combine her love of science with a desire to care for others by becoming a doctor.

 

 

 

 

 

When you invest in a child, you’re investing in the future.

Give Now.

Ellen and Montse: A Transformational Year

Over the past twelve months we’ve shared stories of some of the matches your support has made possible. As 2017 comes to a close, we followed up with one of these matches to learn more about their year. They have experienced some exciting changes.

When we introduced you to Big Sister Ellen and her Little Sister Montse last spring, Montse was trying to adjust to a new school as a high school freshman. At the time, one of Ellen and Montse’s primary goals was to help Montse become the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

Now, months later, with a year of high school behind her and encouragement from her Big Sister, finishing high school is not her only ambition. Montse has particularly enjoyed studying psychology and learning about the emotional and physical aspects of the human brain. This has inspired her to want to become a physician and she knows that to achieve this goal she will need to attend college.

It is a dream that she has been working toward even though she is only a sophomore. “Montse went on a school-sponsored trip to Louisiana to visit colleges last year,” said Ellen. “This year’s trip is to Washington, D.C. and she really wants to go because she wants to visit one of the schools I attended. However, this trip costs a lot more.”

Montse didn’t think that making this year’s trip was a possibility. She knew that her parents couldn’t afford to send her and she wasn’t sure she could raise the money. She sold popcorn as a fundraiser through her school, but was only able to raise about $100.

“That’s when we decided to set up a fundraising website that I shared through my network,” said Ellen. “We posted a lovely letter Montse wrote explaining who she is and what her aspirations are. I think both of us had low expectations.“

“The response was incredible,” Ellen continued. “We raised almost $800. Even people I work with whom I’ve never actually met donated. I work for a very generous company and the people there always want to help out.”

To make her dream of becoming a doctor a reality, however, the obstacles Montse faces are not only financial. She must also overcome her family’s doubts. Though her family is proud and supportive of her, some members do not believe that she can achieve her dreams. “She has family members who still joke that she will probably just drop out of high school and get married,” Ellen said. “Montse says, ‘I don’t listen to them anymore. They are wrong.’”

Montse has backed up her statement with action this year. “I’ve always encouraged her to do well in school, and she has always been a good ‘B’ student, but she was young and she was dealing with a lot as a kid,” Ellen remarked. “But this year, she has been so much more motivated to be at the top of her class. I’ve never seen that kind of determination in her before. She is now number 1 or number 2 in her class. She loves talking about psychology and about how the brain works. She’s just super excited about it.”

“Eight months ago, Montse wanted to be a special effects makeup artist. That has changed into her wanting to become a doctor,” said Ellen. “I think that’s a really cool transition. She knows what she likes and as she’s exposed to more things, her interests are evolving. It’s super cool to watch.”

Montse has also established some personal goals. She is starting to think about college resumes and is working toward gaining more leadership and service experience than is required by her school. “She really wants to get the Gold Standard for service hours,” said Ellen.

In the past year, Montse has come a long way from simply trying to adjust to a new school. “I actually think that moving to a new school was a blessing,“ said Ellen. “Montse had a lot of friends at her old school and it was a comfortable place. She moved to this new school where she didn’t know anyone, and she put her energy into excelling academically.”

“She is so much more confident now that she’s gained a sense of purpose and a passion. She seems so much more centered and calm,” said Ellen. “This is new. When we were matched three years ago Montse had issues with aggression and she was angry at everyone. Now she knows what she wants to be and she is taking steps to get there. And I will always support her through graduating high school, attending college, and becoming a doctor. It’s been a great year.”

Your support makes matches, and possibilities like these, possible. Montse’s Big Sister has provided her with the support and encouragement to envision and pursue a future that she could not have conceived of before. Thank you for helping Montse, and more children like her.

Our 2017 Holiday Party – Snow Much Fun

It truly is the most wonderful time of the year! On Sunday, December 10th, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas held its annual Holiday Party. This merry celebration welcomed over 300 Bigs, Littles and staff members to the Texas Museum of Science and Technology (TxMOST) where matches came together to enjoy the holiday season.

It was an afternoon filled with classic games, educational experiments, and engaging museum tours. From playing Connect Four to touring the museum and visiting the Planetarium, Bigs and Littles enjoyed yummy snacks as they bonded over countless activities. They snapped silly photos at the photo booth and learned how to create circuits with the help of LEDs and playdough.

One of the most popular attractions was the toy booth. Our Littles’ eyes gleamed with joy as they saw the abundance of toys! Their faces lit up when they were told they could chose a gift to take home.

“This Holiday Party is very special to us and it keeps growing year after year!” said Brent Fields, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “It is awesome to see the museum filled with matches bonding with each other. This is a great opportunity for us to connect with matches, and with one another.”

This is the second year BBBS has held this event at the Texas Museum of Science and Technology and our matches were in for a treat! Attendees were able to experience the Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion exhibit. The exhibit features over 40 interactive pieces of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs and the kids loved it! They experimented with the impressive recreations as they learned more about Leonardo’s career.

“Everyone has a great time,” said Adriana Adams, BBBS customer relations supervisor. “A lot of the matches come every year and look forward to seeing their friends. And we look forward to seeing them too!”

This special event would not have been possible without the help and participation of our sponsors and donors. A huge thank you to the Texas Museum of Science & Technology, AECOM, RSM, General Motors, Alpha Phi Alpha, MyEventIsTheBomb, ADP, Young Men’s Service League, Junior League of Austin, National Society of Black Engineers, and Hapi Drinks.

Thank you for creating holiday magic and lasting memories for the children, families and volunteers we serve.

See our Flickr album of photos from the event here

See photo booth photos here

Waiting To Be Matched – The Impact

 

 

Kids process time differently than adults do, especially when they are waiting for something special. For kids wanting a mentor, a friend, or someone to help them, being on a waiting list can feel like it takes forever.

“Waiting to be matched with a Big Brother or Sister can seem like it takes a long time,” said Adriana Adams, BBBS Customer Relations Supervisor. “And they take it personally. Kids think ‘There’s something about me that means I can’t get a mentor.’  Parents are more understanding and have better perspective.”

Though they’re understanding, however, waiting is hard on parents as well. “We have parents who are looking for help, who are going through a hard time,” said Adriana. “And they have nowhere else to go. It is really hard to have to tell them that we can’t match their child right away.”

“People will call and tell us stories that show just how much their child needs a Big,” said Ellen Harsch, Enrollment Supervisor. “For example, a mom will say, ‘My child is having a real hard time in school and getting into trouble,’ or ‘My child has been getting into fights since his dad went to jail,’ or ‘My child seems lonely since his dad died.’ Sometimes it can be one hard story after another. And everyone who calls deserves a Big. The family may be going through something that is so hard for them, and one way we can support and help them is to provide a friend, but it’s not something we can just snap our fingers and do immediately because the demand exceeds our staff capacity.”

BBBS’ staff members let parents and children know about the expectations for getting matched, but that doesn’t always make it any easier for families, or for staff, when children are put on the waiting list. “It’s always hard and sad to say ‘No.’ And it’s hard on us as staff because we know how much good a mentor can do,” Ellen continued. “We know that if we could get these kiddos matched we could really make a difference in impacting their lives in a positive way.”

The kids waiting to be matched know that having a mentor can be positive too, as their comments reveal. “One Little Brother said that he wants a mentor because he wants someone he can hang out with and talk to,” said Christina Eisenlord, Enrollment Specialist. “Another Little is the oldest child in his family with a lot of responsibility and he needs some space away from the chaos within the house.”

“One Little Sister is super excited about the possibility of getting a Big Sister because she says she really needs help in school,” Christina continued.

For some of the kids on the waiting list it’s about the companionship of having an adult friend. “One Little Sister hopes to get a Big Sister because she doesn’t want to be lonely,” Christina added. “Her mother has breast cancer and she really wants someone to talk to. She wants more than just fun activities because she’s struggling with what is going on with her mom.”

As new matches get started, it’s exciting to imagine what their futures might hold.

“Once a match begins there’s so much good that can come from it. We see that over and over as Bigs, Littles, and family members move through life events together. While the wait can be a challenge, the benefits, opportunities and relationships that come from being matched can truly last a lifetime,” Ellen said.

Big Brother Chris agreed. “When we first got matched, Keon was a little shy,” he said about his Little Brother Keontray. “He’d talk about his day and I’d ask him all sorts of questions about his life and he’d share if he wanted to.”

“The wait to be matched with Keon was definitely worth it. Since Day One, seeing Keon once a week is the highlight of my week, every single week. The best part is that Keon adds just as much to my life as I do his. He inspires me to be a better person, and to keep pushing through school and work and life. He’s a brilliant kid and I believe in him 100%. I’d do anything for him and his family on any day.”

Is being on the waiting list hard? Yes.

Is it worth the wait? Absolutely!

Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Waiting List

Big Brothers Big Sisters works hard to match as many kids who want mentors as possible. Unfortunately, matching all of the kids who apply doesn’t just automatically happen. Consequently, kids end up on our “waiting list.” We talked with Joe Strychalski, BBBS’ Vice President of Programs, to explore why this happens and how more kids can be moved off the waiting list and into the mentoring relationships they need and deserve.

What is BBBS’ “waiting list” and who is on it?

JS: We always have far more kids and parents who inquire about getting matched with a Big Brother or Sister than we can accommodate (match). Our “waiting list” consists of those kids/families who have inquired about getting matched, but who we can’t immediately start in the enrollment process. We keep all of their information, and when we reach the point where we can actively start looking for a match for them, we’ll call them to set up an interview and get them started in the process.

We try to be open, upfront and realistic about matching kids.  Our goal is that anyone we interview and take through the full enrollment process is someone we feel we can find a great match for – and quickly.  This is the best use of staff time, makes for the most effective matches, and gives kids/families the most realistic picture of our ability to match them with a Big Brother or Sister.

Why do we have a waiting list?

JS: Two things: supply and demand, and money.

Every BBBS agency I know of receives more inquiries from kids/parents than 1) inquiries from volunteers, and 2) than they can effectively match.  Part of the challenge is that typically about 70% of inquiries are to enroll Little Brothers, while only about 30% of inquiries to volunteer are from Big Brothers – so there’s a major imbalance in folks coming into the program.  We typically have around 600 kids on our waiting list and around 80% or more of those kids are boys.  Big Brothers who come into our program, who enroll, and who are approved, get matched very quickly, but we never have enough men volunteering to fill the need.

By money, we mean contributions and revenue to help us hire more staff to serve more kids. Throughout our process, each department (Customer Relations, Enrollment and Match Support) consistently operates at full capacity.  For example, we have a team of about 8 Match Support Specialists who introduce new Bigs and Littles and support existing matches.  We estimate that each MSS can support 85-90 matches at most and still maintain a high level of service to their matches.  This level of quality is critical to our ability to achieve positive outcomes for each of the kids we match. We could serve more kids at a lower level, but that would negate much of the impact that we see in high-quality, professionally-supported mentoring relationships.  Over the last year, our entire staff has been operating at 98-100% of our projected capacity in every area.  We’re doing our best to have the biggest impact on as many kids as we can.  If we were able to hire more staff, we could serve more matches and move more kids off the waiting list and through the process more quickly.

What is the impact of the waiting list on some of our matches? Are there situations where one sibling is matched and another is not?

JS: We do our best to move families through the process together and not leave one sibling matched and another or others waiting for very long.  Again, we want to make the best possible matches, but we consider all siblings in a family when we start the enrollment process.

We also do our best to keep siblings on the same Match Support Specialist caseload.  Our staff do a great job of establishing trust and healthy relationships with each of our families and often, it’s best when one staff member can be the point of contact for families with multiple kiddos.

 The waiting list has gone down. What have we done to achieve this success?

JS: Over the last year, our Customer Relations team has done a great job of reaching out to those on the waiting list to ensure that families are still engaged with us as well as looking for kids we are likely to be able to match more quickly.  We have received some funding from grants and foundations that has helped us to serve populations that can often be a bit harder to match.  We have also been tracking our volunteer inquiries closely and looking for kids on the waiting list who are likely to be a good fit for the volunteers who are coming into the program.  Along with this, we have been starting with those who have been on the waiting list the longest and trying to move these kids forward more quickly than we’ve been able to in the past.  Often when we have parents/guardians and kids who inquired a year or two ago, who have patiently been waiting to start the process, and who continue to want to be in the program – these are the kids and families who will thrive in a match.  They’re committed, engaged, and excited.

However, the wait list constantly fluctuates. At times, we have more than 700 kids waiting, and recently we’ve decreased that to around 500.  BUT, we typically receive more inquiries early in the year than throughout the summer and late in the year, so our list is likely to move back over 600 in the beginning of 2018.

How can people help? What is needed to reduce the list even further?

JS: We will always need more male volunteers and funding to serve more kids.

Male Volunteers – As mentioned, our wait list is almost completely full of Little Brothers wanting Big Brothers.  We never have enough men volunteering as Bigs. Of the approx. 600 kids waiting, about 500 of those are boys.

Also, typically about 90% of the young people we serve are from minority populations (mainly Hispanic and African-American), while nearly 70% of our volunteers are Caucasian. So about 450 of the young people on our waiting list are boys and young men of color.

Although we do match across ethnicities and see positive outcomes from these matches, Littles and families often ask to be matched with a Big of the same race/ethnicity, feeling that this Big may be able to better relate to the Little, and to understand the challenges they’re facing.

Regarding volunteer Bigs, we always have a need for men, men of color and bilingual Bigs (both male and female).

Funding – Even if we had an influx of hundreds of male volunteers, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to enroll and match them as quickly as we would like to because of the need for more staff to support them.

Is there still a need?

JS: Absolutely – and there always will be, particularly as our region grows.  BBBS will always have kids/families wanting mentors.  My hope is that, while we will always have a “waiting list,” we will start to be able to move people through the process much more quickly and efficiently.  And, instead of telling people that they’ll have to wait to be interviewed and start the process, we’ll be able to get them enrolled and immediately start looking for a good match.

One of the things we share with both families/kids and Bigs is that we never guarantee how long it will take to find a match. We would rather take more time to make a good match, than force a potential bad match to happen quickly. Creating quality matches is our highest priority.