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

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.

Amplify Austin Has Begun!

Amplify Austin runs from 6 p.m. March 2nd to 6 p.m. March 3rd. We need your help to Amplify our impact for children in our community.  Please give now!

We have a goal of raising over $20,000 to provide life-changing mentoring services to even more kids in Central Texas! With more than 600 kids on our waiting list, every gift makes a difference!

Shannon and Mykayla

Shannon has been a Big Sister to Mykayla for over 8 years. The two have enjoyed seeing movies, swimming, eating out, and shopping. But most of all, they have enjoyed simply sharing what’s happening in each other’s lives.

It’s the sharing that’s been key, as Mykayla has been through a lot for someone so young. The only child of a single parent, Mykayla was the primary support to her mother who suffered through cancer, taking her mom to doctor’s appointments and providing day-to-day care. As a result, Mykayla’s grades and academic focus started to suffer, until her Big Sister stepped in to offer assistance and stability.

“Mykayla is an excellent student and has been in Advanced Placement classes. She loves to sing and is in her school’s most accomplished choir. She has many other great attributes, such as her amazing ability to stay focused and calm, as well as her sense of humor,” Shannon said.  “When I think back to the shy 10-year-old girl I first met, and the amazing 18-year-old young woman I know today, I can hardly believe she is the same person. I am so proud of who she has become.”

Now that Mykayla is graduating from high school, the conversation has turned to college preparations. “Our relationship has deepened so much over the years,” Shannon continued.  “I told her when we were first matched that our time together was a time she could just be a kid and have fun. Now our time is more about me trying to help her decide which college to choose.”

Looking back, Shannon acknowledges that while she became a volunteer in order to give to a child, she is the one who has received a gift. “Being a Big Sister has taught me what it means to give back,” Shannon explained. “I have had the opportunity to be a part of Mykayla’s and her mom’s lives and have developed friendships that will last for the rest of my life.”

Your gift creates relationships like these. Please give now!  Thank you!

A Real “Roll” Model

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He only bowls once a year, but when he does, Mike McShaffry makes it count. He bowls at Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Bowl for Kids event, and he challenges others to “keep gaming” for a great cause.

Mike has been a part of BBBS’ Bowl for Kids for many years.  A senior software engineer with mobile gaming company ArtCraft Entertainment, he was recruited to the event 7 or 8 years ago by another local gamer who challenged all gaming company employees in Austin to participate.

“When my friend moved on to other things I kind of picked up the baton,” Mike said. “Now I send emails out to game companies and try to recruit teams.” One of his recruits was Stefan Sinclair who not only ended up bowling at the event, he eventually became a Big Brother and was named Texas’ Big Brother of the Year in 2015.

Why has Mike been so focused on helping with Bowl for Kids? Like any good gamer, he knows the program on several different levels.

Mike first became involved with BBBS as a Little Brother. “I was a Little in 1979 in Ft. Worth when BBBS was just getting started in the state of Texas,” Mike recalled. “My mom was recently divorced and she reached out through our church and found Big Brothers Big Sisters. My brother, sister and I were all paired with a Big Brother who was a senior at Texas Christian University.”

Although they were only matched for a year, the connection had lasting impacts for Mike. “Al was our Big Brother and all three of us had a great experience in the program,” Mike added. “Al took us on outings, just like matches do today. We went to get pizza and we went swimming. I attribute my interest in computers, in bicycles and in community service to him. He took us to the computer center at TCU and a lot of our outings were bike-related. He introduced me to all these things.”

Mike’s interest in giving back has not only turned into fundraising for Bowl for Kids, but also into being a Big himself.  “My wife Robin and I were paired with an older child,” Mike said. “Being his Big for a year was very rewarding and very heart-wrenching at the same time. Bigs sometimes want to solve all of the problems in a Little’s life, and that’s hard because some of these kids face challenges that are very complex.”

Mike and his wife worked to provide their Little with positive experiences and encouragement, introducing him to a variety of job possibilities such as riding with a firefighter at Austin Bergstrom International Airport, and rewarding him with special outings as an incentive to stay in school.

“The experience taught us how important it is for kids to see something other than what they think is a fated future for themselves,” Mike continued. “Many of these kids think ‘This is my only reality and I can’t get out of it or change it,’ but a Big can open new doors for a child and help them see that there is something more for them if they apply themselves and try to overcome the problems or obstacles they face.”

The Big and Little relationship is one Mike sees as having “forever” impacts. “I think if you help one kid, then that kid becomes an adult who can pass that on to so many other people. That is what’s so important about Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Mike added. “With BBBS you don’t just help one kid, you help every single person that child interacts with for the rest of their life. And that’s a big impact.”

That’s why Mike continues to be a major supporter of BBBS’ Bowl for Kids. “I love it,” he said. “It is such a fun event. I love seeing colleagues at the lanes in costumes, having a great time and, on top of that, raising money for BBBS to help children stay in or get into the program every year.”

Of course, being a gamer, there is competition involved. “I love the competition aspect, because game companies always like to one-up each other. Typically, we’ll all be watching our phones during the event looking at everyone’s fundraising,” Mike laughed. “And we’ll see ‘Oh, Certain Affinity (another game company) just broke $3,000. Everyone put in another $50.’ That definitely happens.”

In Mike’s experience, it all combines for a very positive result. “Having groups of people compete to fundraise for such a great cause is such an easy way to do something really good,” he said.

Plus, for this leader of team “Strikeadelic”, BBBS’ Bowl for Kids event fits his general philosophy of life. “No matter how you choose to use your time,” he said, “try allocating a little bit for making the world a better place than you found it.”

Game on, Mike.

BBBS’ Bowl for Kids is set for March 3 – 5, 2017 at Highland Lanes. To sign up go here.

Jess And Rebekah

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They’ve only been matched for a short time, but Jess and Rebekah are already busy enjoying their time together.

“As a Big Sister, I was looking forward to building a special relationship, being a role model, and also learning from my Little,” Jess said.  “I think relationships are reciprocal, especially in terms of growth.  And with Rebekah being a teenager, our relationship has been more like hanging out with an adult. It’s been really fun.”

The two have been exploring city trails and doing a lot of hiking, something Rebekah enjoys but doesn’t get to do with her family. “We like to do a lot of outdoor activities,” Jess continued, “but we also enjoy playing games and cooking.”

Rebekah was looking forward to having a Big Sister she could talk to and who has gone through some of the things she’s struggling with. “Rebekah is very wise and has a good head on her shoulders,” Jess added. “She knows that there are things she wants to improve upon, and she realizes her friends aren’t always going to be the best ones to help her with those things.”

As Jess points out, the more positive role models we all have in our lives, the better.

“It’s easy to get caught up in being adults and worrying about our full-time jobs, about insurance… about all of these things… and losing track of the child within us,” Jess concluded. “Being a Big helps me step back and say ‘What are the things in life that I really enjoy?’ It helps me appreciate the little things in life and allows me to have a relationship with a young person in which we can both learn from one another.”

Monthly contributions from our BBBS Game Changers make relationships like these possible. To learn more about how you can become a Game Changer, go to www.gamechangersaustin.org.

BBBS’ Big Futures Program

A mixed race teenage girl is taking a high school standardized test in class. She looks down and works on the test.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas exists to help children achieve success in life through one-to-one mentoring. BBBS currently serves children ages 6 to 18 years of age, and the agency’s formal relationship with each match ends when a Little becomes 18 years old or graduates from high school. However, a new program called Big Futures may extend the length and type of services that BBBS provides for Bigs and Littles.

“By closing matches at 18 or at graduation, we are missing out on the opportunity to positively impact our young people as they are entering adulthood – one of the most pivotal times in their lives,” said Joe Strychalski, BBBS’ Vice President of Programs.

Big Futures will offer on-going support to Bigs and Littles beyond the high school years, help Littles fully utilize BBBS’ Scholarship Program, and provide additional resources and support regarding post-secondary education and career readiness.

A handful of matches whose Littles graduated from high school last year are currently working with BBBS to develop and define this new program as a pilot project.

“Many of our young people come from challenging backgrounds and are often the first in their families to attend college,” Joe continued. “Our goal, especially in the early stages of this pilot, is simply to better understand the needs of our young people as they transition into adulthood and to continue offering support, encouragement and guidance to help them get where they want to go.”

Eventually, Joe sees the program providing resources and training to students in middle and high school as well.

Big Brother John and his Little Brother Jaylon are involved in the Big Futures pilot program. Although Jaylon is a college freshman in Alabama and John doesn’t see him as often as he did during Jaylon’s high school years, the two are still in contact. John is currently providing support to help Jaylon stay focused on his goals in veterinary science.

“Big Futures is a great idea,” John said. “With BBBS’ current age limits for matches, you help someone get through high school and then it’s like ‘Hey, good luck in college.’ And college is a really different animal, with a lot more freedom and responsibility. If kids need a helping hand to get through grade school and high school, they are likely to need support as they transition to college.”

Rob Richardson, a Big Brother and benefits specialist at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees. Rob has worked in the college environment for over 16 years, spending a large portion of that time training resident advisors and, more recently, working with student judicial services. Rob has counseled students on everything from roommate conflicts to allegations of cheating to police charges.

“The years between ages 18 to 22 are a crucial developmental time,” Rob remarked. “This is when students are building habits they will have for a lifetime, they are in transition getting new class schedules every three months, and they are learning to create structure for themselves for the first time. The Big Futures program will provide Littles with consistency and support during these years.”

“Support is so important, especially in the first year of college when students are making decisions about their majors and how to spend their time,” Rob continued. “I’ve seen students fall into the trap of wanting to do everything, and then I’ve seen the opposite, students who have trouble engaging with the campus community. Continuing the BBBS relationship will offer Littles stability as they are developing ideas about the world and about their purpose.”

BBBS’ pilot project is currently focused on identifying the most important issues and needs that young people have following high school. The agency will then work on developing a range of tools, activities, and resources to support Littles as they navigate their respective paths toward adulthood.

Helping students prepare for success doesn’t just mean college prep work either. Big Futures will support youth around the three “E’s” – Education, Employment and Enlistment.  The program will serve as a resource for students wanting to attend college, enter the job market immediately after high school, or enlist in military service. Matches will be able to access information on job readiness, resume building, work/life skills, and enlistment requirements.

“We recognize that we are not the experts in any of these areas and we don’t want to be,” Joe explained. “There are numerous agencies doing fantastic work in each of these realms. Our goal is to guide young people to the most useful resources for them.”

“This is one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced in my 9+ years at BBBS,” Joe concluded. “This program will give us the opportunity to truly experience the life-changing power of mentoring as our youth transition from childhood into adulthood. Big Futures will allow us to help Littles use the confidence, skills and aspirations that they’ve built through their matches as they move toward achieving the ‘success in life’ that our Vision proclaims.”

If you’d like more information on this or other BBBS programs, please contact us at 512-472-5437 or visit our website at www.Bigmentoring.org

Finding Her Way

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Children are resilient, but they can reach a breaking point. Alyssa is a 16-year-old who is the youngest of 4 children. After experiencing a series of tragic events, Alyssa was losing her way – until she was matched with a Big Sister.

“She was on the wrong path. She had lost hope. You could just see it in her,” said her mother, Stephanie, who pointedly admitted that she feared her daughter would end up in jail or dead.

The difficulties began when the family’s home was flooded and they had to move. Six months later their house burned down and they had to move again. Not long after that, the family suffered through yet another flood, all within a two-year period. Alyssa was in the house during the most recent flood and it terrified her. These events began to take a toll on the teenager.

“Her attitude changed and she acted like she didn’t care about anything,” her mother continued. “She was getting into fights and had to be transferred to different schools. She was climbing out of windows to run away from school. It was really bad.”

Things started to change about 6 months ago, when Alyssa was matched with Rebecca. The two had an instant connection. Alyssa had found a friend who could help her get back onto a positive path. “They were both very comfortable with each other,” Stephanie said. “They found it easy to talk to one another.”

Rebecca became a Big because she remembered her own mentors and how they’d contributed to her life. “I wanted to be that person for someone else,” she recalled.

As a Big, Rebecca had two goals. She wanted to be someone Alyssa could open up to and talk to in a way that she couldn’t with her mom and siblings. Becca, as the family calls her, also wanted to support Alyssa in a practical sense by encouraging her to graduate, to find a career and to succeed. According to the family, both goals are being met.

“Now, oh my gosh, how Alyssa’s changed,” her mother continued. “She volunteers at the animal shelter. She is in FFA, a leadership program, at school. Becca got her out hiking. She just has a better outlook on life.”

Alyssa’s grades have also improved under Becca’s tutelage. “Last year she failed several classes, but this year she’s passing all of her classes and has gotten A’s in some,” Becca explained. “I’m so proud of her.”

Becca and Alyssa both enjoy the outdoors and going on hikes together. “We also really enjoy food,” Becca laughed. “So, we will often go to dinner for our outing.” One new place that Alyssa seems to like is the Hit the Spot Café.

“She also really loves animals and once a month we volunteer at the animal shelter,” Becca added. “I helped her apply to volunteer and signed up with her, but she’s kind of run with it. She now goes to help out after school. It’s something that’s become a part of her life and that she’s doing of her own accord. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of her for. I could see her working with animals as a career.”

Having a career wasn’t something Alyssa had even thought about until the pair took a tour of Texas State University. “Now she’s started talking about going to college and life after high school,” Becca said, “and I don’t even bring it up. I get excited when I see her making such progress, becoming more confident and starting to make goals for herself.”

Before being matched with Rebecca, Alyssa had never wanted to go to college. Now however she says, “I am going to go to college.”

“Becca has opened my eyes and helped me to see that no matter where you come from you can always aim higher,” Alyssa explained. Alyssa would be the first in her family to attend college.

Her mom, Stephanie, agrees that Alyssa has a new attitude about her future. “Alyssa really looks up to Becca,” she said. “Now Alyssa tells me, ‘I know what I’m going to do with my life and I’m going to get there. I’m going to make good money, and buy a house. I’m going to be somebody.’ I have never heard her talk like that before.”

As Alyssa makes her way to the life she envisions, she plans on having her Big Sister Becca by her side. “Yes, we’ll be friends for life,” Alyssa said.

Becca agrees. “Alyssa is wonderful and I look forward to hanging out with her. I really want to see her through high school and support her next steps.”

Such support is not lost on Alyssa. She knows what her Big Sister is doing for her. “Becca is a wonderful person who has really changed me,” Alyssa added, “and I really do love her for that.”