Learning Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight on Adriana Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s So Special About $1,250?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For BBBS $1,250 is a magic number.

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

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

 

BBBS Receives National Gold Standard Award

Recognizing a higher level of achievement, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas has received the 2016 Big Brothers Big Sisters of America Gold Standard Award. BBBS of Central Texas is one of only 16 agencies, out of 300 nationwide, to receive this recognition. The award, presented by the Nationwide Leadership Council, recognizes the agencies that improve their financial revenues and provide high-quality programming for children.

“I am so proud that our agency has been honored with the Gold Standard Award for 2016,” said Carlos Barbosa, BBBS’ board chair. “Simply put, meeting the criteria for this award means that we grew our revenues, which allowed us to serve more kids, while still maintaining our high quality standards. As Board Chair, I feel honored to have the opportunity to work with such a great and dedicated team, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work that our staff and our leadership team does every day. This is independent confirmation that we are doing the right things for our Littles, the youth of Central Texas.”

“BBBS received Gold Standard awards in 2010 and 2011.  Receiving the award two years in a row resulted in us getting the national Pinnacle Award in 2011,” said Brent Fields, CEO of BBBS of Central Texas. “The following year we were recognized as the Best Board in America (BBBS) and runner-up to Best Agency in America (BBBS). Receiving this national award again is a great honor. It also puts us in the top 5-7% of all BBBS agencies. It is a tremendous privilege to serve with this award-winning team at BBBS, and credit also goes to our amazing volunteers, donors, and supporters who continue to invest in our transformational work and mission.”

Agencies receiving the Gold Standard Award met or exceeded the following two goals, among others, in 2016:

  • Achieved a higher rate of mentoring success based on national criteria
  • Increased revenue by 5% or more

As a Gold Standard winner, BBBS of Central Texas is also a candidate for the Best Agency in America award which will also be awarded by the Nationwide Leadership Council in the Spring.

Dale Murphy on Bowl for Kids

 

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Dale Murphy is another long-time bowler and supporter of Bowl for Kids. We recently sat down with Dale to hear more about his involvement and his advice for others.

 When and how did you get connected with Bowl for Kids?

After becoming a Big Brother in 2005, I attended a couple of BBBS events and was asked whether I was interested in becoming more involved with the agency.  Bowl for Kids sounded like a great fit, and I joined the organizing committee for the 2006 event.

Why have you participated for so long?

The first year I participated (2006), I recruited several friends/colleagues from my industry (the American Society of Civil Engineers – ASCE), and folks from a young professionals group I was active in, not really knowing what I was getting us into.  Turned out the event was a ton of fun, was super easy to do, and I was pretty dang excited that the teams I recruited raised over $14,000 that year!

With that first bit of success, I felt encouraged to try a bit harder to get the ASCE members and companies more involved, as it really benefited both BBBS and ASCE.  We turned it into a fundraising competition among the various engineering companies, and with word of mouth from those who had already participated, it really started to take off.  On average ASCE gets 20+ teams and 100+ participants each year, most of whom are folks who come back year after year.  I can’t imagine anything else I could be doing that would have such a positive return.

Why do you feel the event is so important?

The event is a great way for people who might be younger or who are not in the financial position to be donating significant sums of money themselves, but who are passionate about BBBS and its mission, to have a positive impact on the organization.  Through a little bit of work recruiting folks and fundraising you can really make a big difference, and you get to have a blast doing it.

What would you want people to know about this event?

First, absolutely NO BOWLING SKILL is required! The bowling is just for fun and your score doesn’t matter in the slightest…That is pretty much always my first line when I try to recruit folks.  Second, it is shockingly easy to fundraise for this event, and most everyone far exceeds the goal with minimal effort.  Last, get your team to dress up according to the theme of the event. Costumes are a huge part of the fun!