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 Christina Snell

Christina Snell fell in love with human behavior in college. In her words, she “just like[s] people”, especially kids. That passion resulted in her not only changing her college major, but in literally walking out of a college classroom and into a Big Brothers Big Sisters office. Ten years later she is still sharing her love for people and kids, but she is now in BBBS of Central Texas’ office, where she works as a match support supervisor.

Starting out as a pharmacy major at UT Arlington but soon switching to child psychology, Christina found herself working at a women’s and children’s shelter one summer. “It was too tough. There were many things there that I couldn’t shake off,” Christina said. “I realized I wanted to be on the light end of the tunnel. I wanted to be on the positive side of things where I could see healing happen.”

As a senior, she’d just left one of her UTA classes when she saw a girl wearing a BBBS t-shirt and asked her about the program. Following that encounter, she walked to the local BBBS office a few blocks away, asked if they had any openings – they had 3 – and a week later interviewed for all three positions and was hired. “I started there and never looked back,” she said. “I fell in love with it.”

Today, Christina oversees a staff of 5 match support specialists. She supports her team with any match-related issues: giving guidance, making sure compliance measures for national standards are met and that special events are staffed. In addition, she has elected to keep supporting many of the matches she started when she first joined the Austin office as a match support specialist. “I have had a long-standing relationship with these Littles’ families and these Bigs,” Christina explained. “Continuing to support these matches helped me maintain a balance when I made the transition from being a match support specialist to becoming a supervisor.”

Understanding both sides of the job is a real plus according to Christina because she knows what her team is going through every day, all the different “hats” they have to wear in their jobs, and the load that they are carrying. Much of her team’s success depends on the responsiveness of the families they are working with – families that are often dealing with significant difficulties.

These challenges fit well, however, with another of Christina’s passions. “I love empowering people,” she admitted. “Whether it’s encouraging a Big when a match gets difficult, or reminding parents that we’re here to help, or empowering staff to help a match through difficult times.”

One of the toughest challenges in her position is having to explain the unexplainable. “It’s hard when I have to explain to a child that I don’t know why their Big left,” Christina continued. “I have to explain it in a safe way. I have to let them know that sometimes life happens to people and that it happened to their Big, but that we’re going to find another Big for them.”

To help balance the challenges, Christina enjoys spending time with her husband and four kids – three girls and a boy.  She also loves singing karaoke, hiking, and creating special wall hangings. “I make things out of reclaimed fence wood. Neighbors will call my husband and say, ‘Your wife is in the driveway with a circular saw, what is she doing?’” Christina laughs. “But I love building things with old wood just for fun.”

Just don’t ask her to cook. “It’s still a New Year’s resolution that has never grown legs,” Christina said. “So luckily, my husband grills a lot.”

Since she’s been with BBBS for 10 years, people often ask her what her plans are. “I don’t have any plans to leave,” Christina said. “BBBS is like a family to me and the mission of the work we do is still alive for me. It’s been great.”

BBBS Launches Bigs in Blue Program

Bringing different members of the community together has always been part of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ mission to help children succeed in life, because children are connected to communities. Now, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas has started a new program aimed at building relationships between youth and law enforcement officers.

Created by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Bigs in Blue is a national initiative aimed at recruiting law enforcement officers to serve as mentors to youth in their communities. BBBS believes these mentoring relationships will create stronger, healthier bonds between law enforcement personnel and the children, families, and communities they serve.

The program already exists in about 20 cities across the country. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas is currently launching a Bigs in Blue program in Central Texas. One of the keys to a successful program is the enthusiastic support of the local chief of police, and, to that end, BBBS has developed a relationship, and completed a Memorandum of Understanding, with Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and the Austin Police Department.

“The Austin Police Department is excited to partner with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas to support the youth in our neighborhoods,” Chief Manley said. “Bigs in Blue offers officers an opportunity to have a relationship with young people that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Such a connection is beneficial to all involved, as well as the community as a whole.”

“At a time when law enforcement is under intense media and public scrutiny, it is more important than ever for young people to understand that police officers are not a force to be feared. Police officers want to protect and serve their communities,” said Philip Kearney, Administrative Specialist in Chief Manley’s office, and a BBBS Big Brother.

“Police officers are human. When young people have positive interactions with police officers, they get to see the human side of them, and vice versa.  The only way to resolve differences or to overcome distrust is by establishing heartfelt respect that flows in both directions.”

Older officers tell Philip that, years ago, when children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, many said ‘a police officer,’ but that that has changed. “I think we need to re-establish that connection,” Philip said, “to help young people understand that police officers are just normal people who have chosen to protect and serve their neighbors and to introduce them to a fulfilling career path that might interest them.”

Philip believes that BBBS’ Bigs in Blue program can help all involved “see each other with new eyes.” “Just as community members can start to fail to see the humans behind the badges, sometimes police officers can begin to experience compassion fatigue from dealing day-in and day-out with negative things that happen in the community,” Philip explained. “It’s a two-way street.”

“Working with young people will remind police officers that the people they serve are their neighbors, and that the young people they protect represent the future of their community. And working with officers will help young people understand that police officers are their neighbors and friends as well.”

Philip was a Big Brother long before Bigs in Blue was initiated. He was matched with his Little Brother about 6 years ago when he was in his 20’s and Malik was 9, and laughingly says that they’ve both grown up together. Philip believes that Malik has been a grounding influence in his life.

“Since I don’t have kids, sometimes I can think that my negative behaviors and attitudes only affect me, so ‘who cares?’  But now that I’m conscious of being a role model, I am more conscientious in all aspects of my life and have become a better person for it,” Philip admitted.

As for Malik, he’s been able to enjoy things he might never have experienced if he hadn’t become a Little Brother. “His interests can change from week to week, or even day to day,” Philip continued. “No matter what he’s interested in that week, whether it’s robots, or disc golf, or playing guitar—I get to say, ‘Okay, how can I help you explore that interest?’  And then we go for it.”

Philip says the same is not true of Malik’s peers who don’t have mentors.  “They just seem so bored, and so resigned to a life that doesn’t involve the pursuit of dreams,” he said. “Not Malik, though. He has a light in his eyes, a fearlessness, and a confidence that he is going to go to college and make all of his dreams come true.  Knowing that I had a part in that, whether large or small, gives me a sense of fulfillment and joy like nothing else.”

It’s this kind of transformation that speaks to the potential and promise of the Bigs in Blue program… the ability to create change that can help law enforcement and civilians clear up misconceptions about, and fear toward, one another.

“Bigs in Blue has the power to change young people’s perceptions of law enforcement and they will share those impressions with their friends,” Philip said. “And officers can have huge impacts as Big Brothers or Sisters while also having a ton of fun. Mentoring improves the life of a young person while enriching the mentor’s life in the process. It doesn’t feel like volunteering and the reward is immense.”

And the benefits of each mentoring relationship extend far beyond the Big and Little themselves, affecting the lives of those around them and the greater community as a whole.

As members of a community, we are all connected, and the quality of our connections matters.

Bigs in Blue is designed to foster relationships and understanding between two groups who have much to learn, and gain, from one another.