Making a BIG Difference

Community engagement is an important part of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ work. Now, a new group is turning that emphasis on community inward in order to create a greater sense of connectivity between and among BBBS Bigs and matches.

The new group is called BIG – The Big Impact Group. It is made up of Bigs and other volunteers who are connected with BBBS. Launched in May, the group is using their networking skills and resources to help the organization as a whole.

“I’m so proud of being a part of this organization (BBBS), and I wanted more,” said Michaela Lindsay, a former Big Sister and one of the founders of the new group. “As Bigs, we all feel so strongly about our experiences that we wanted to create an additional sense of community between and among other Bigs.”

Michaela became aware of the need for this type of community when her own match came to an end as her Little Sister Aracely graduated from high school. “We were told that our match would be closing and we were kind of caught off guard by that because we hang out together all the time,” Michaela explained. “So, we approached BBBS about wanting to stay involved with the organization because it’s been such a positive experience for us.”

Michaela believed she had a lot of skills and resources to offer to help meet some of the organization’s needs, and she wanted to keep her Little Sister connected with the agency as well. “Aracely particularly wanted to give back to other high-school-aged Littles,” said Michaela.

Michaela met with Joe Strychalski, BBBS Vice President of Programs, and Christina Snell, Match Support Supervisor, to start the conversation. After months of research and collecting ideas, the Big Impact Group was formed. “We identified a few needs that we thought we might be able to help meet if we mobilized some of our most engaged Bigs and supporters,” said Joe. “Those needs were additional funding to help hire more staff to serve more kids; recruiting volunteers – specifically men, men of color, and bilingual Bigs; and better connecting our Bigs.”

Connecting Bigs seemed like a natural place for the group to start. BBBS matches have match support specialists who do exceptional jobs of helping Bigs in their one-to-one relationships with their Littles, but even with this help matches can sometimes feel isolated from other matches. The Big Impact Group is working on strategies to address this.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people in this group,” said Michaela. “They are passionate about mentorship and have dedicated a significant portion of their time to it. I was involved with BBBS for 5 years and never made these kinds of connections before. So, that has already been a huge benefit of this group!”

To help build connections, the Big Impact Group is launching a Facebook group for Bigs and plans to be a point of contact for future match events. “Sometimes you show up for a match outing like a Round Rock Express baseball game and don’t even realize you’re sitting next to another match,” Michaela continued. “We want to be a point of contact to say, ‘Hey, we’ll meet at this location before the game. Come say ‘hi’ and get to know other Bigs and Littles and help us build a greater sense of community.”

To help BBBS recruit new volunteers, the group has set a goal of enlisting 50 male Bigs. They are planning to use their personal networks to get information out to those who might not be familiar with the organization.  “We want to let people know what is involved and what it means to be a Big. Especially potential male mentors,” said Michaela. “We’re interested in making legitimate connections for BBBS staff to pursue. I’m involved in the MBA program at UT which is a predominately male group. There could be a lot of student interest in the program there.”

To support fundraising, the Big Impact Group has set a goal of raising $50,000 and is scheduling several fundraising events. “Our first event was the ‘Notworking for Charity’ event that we held in late July,” said Joe. “We raised about $8,000, had approximately 200 participants, and 20 people expressed an interest in becoming Bigs.”

The group also has plans for events that satisfy multiple goals such as the Dynamic Duo Fitness Challenge coming up on November 12. This event will give matches a chance to have fun and get acquainted, while also raising funds for BBBS. The group is working on several other events including SantaCon, which will take place downtown on December 9th.

“Our target member for the group is someone who is already connected with BBBS,” said Michaela. “The Big Impact Group is just getting off the ground so we’re interested in attracting additional members. We want to include people who are already familiar with the organization. For instance, there may be people out there who have participated in Bowl for Kids every year and who haven’t necessarily volunteered as Bigs, but who are fully aware of BBBS’ mission and who have been impacted by the organization.”

Membership requirements for the group include: a one-year commitment to the group and attendance at monthly meetings; supporting BBBS financially – as a Game Changer making monthly donations at any level, or making a meaningful personal contribution to BBBS; being a current or past Big/BBBS participant; being a young professional currently engaged with BBBS, or being someone who is interested in future BBBS Board service.

“If someone is interested in joining the group I visit with them first,” said Joe. “I go over the expectations and requirements of membership because we want to make sure people know that this is a working group first and that there are high expectations. There is a social, networking component to our efforts and it is a fun group, but we expect our members to bring their resources – whether time, talent or treasure –  to help us meet our goals.”

“I would love to have more members and to hear more about what Bigs are looking for out of their participation,” Michaela said. “There are professional organizations for everything from sports to fine arts. The Big Impact Group exists to enrich the experience of Bigs and matches, to help the agency with fundraising and recruitment needs, and to build further awareness of BBBS.”

Photo: Big Impact Group members. Back row: Stefan Sinclair, Joe Strychalski, Albert Swantner, Oliver Davis-Urman, Jeremy Giroir. Front row: Liz Garcia, Nicholas Johnson, Michaela Lindsay, Jonathan Lin Davis. Not pictured: Jeremy Cox, Tri Dang, Brett Keenan, and Ali Nichols. 

BBBS Today: A Conversation With Brent Fields

2017 has been a year of awards for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, with the most recent award going to BBBS’ CEO Brent Fields, who was just named the Austin Business Journal’s Non-Profit CEO of the Year. In the past twelve months, BBBS of Central Texas has received recognition as an Austin Business Journal Best Place to Work, a BBBS National Gold Standard Agency award winner, a BBBS National Agency of the Year finalist, and a recipient of BBBS’ National Board of the Year award.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that this recognition has been great,” Brent said. “We – the staff, the board, our donors, our volunteers, our families, and our community partners – have been working hard for years. We didn’t just suddenly start getting it right. We’re just fortunate that at this moment in time we are really seeing the fruit of our labor.”

“This recognition means a lot to me personally because I think for years now a number of people have been trusting me, trusting our team, and trusting our vision,” Brent continued. “I love that so many of our supporters can feel they’ve made the right investment, and that our work provides a good return on their trust and support.”

Brent became CEO of BBBS of Central Texas in 2008 at a critical time for the agency. “When I came on board the agency had been in existence for 35 years and was well respected in the community. I found there was tremendous passion for the mission and that the agency had just come through an aggressive growth period relative to the number of kids served,” Brent explained. “Unfortunately, that growth was not sustainable. It required more infrastructure than the agency could afford, so we were immediately in crisis repair mode.”

To get the agency onto stable financial ground Brent utilized what at the time he considered his greatest strength – knowing what he didn’t know. “When I came on board, I spent a lot of time listening, observing and assessing,” Brent said.  “During my first days I was just trying to get my arms around the state of the organization, even bringing in an outside group to do an audit. That helped me quickly identify what our business should be, and what was most urgent in my role.”

In the decade since, the agency has evolved into a stark contrast of it’s former self. “Ten years ago we were in a building in need of repair, and now we’re in this amazing, beautiful, intentionally designed facility that not only suits our needs today, but will for decades to come,” Brent continued. “When I started, we had unpaid bills and little cash on hand. Now, we have what are considered to be best operating practices, operational reserves, and a $5 million dollar building that is paid for.

According to every metric you look at, whether related to staff, board, infrastructure, performance, morale, or programmatic outcomes, we’ve seen an amazing transformation. And this is not just because of my tenure. It’s because of all of the things that staff, donors, board members, volunteers, families and supporters have contributed to our work over the years.”

Some of Brent’s most meaningful memories at the agency revolve around those who have contributed. “I’ve been serving in some sort of leadership role for several decades, and some of the most treasured experiences I’ve had are things I’ve seen and experienced at BBBS,” Brent recalled. “I remember staff and board members and supporters enduring some really difficult days. People who hung in there with us and who showed they cared. Who believed that we would come out of the storm and that we would see better days. I remember that.”

Another memorable event occurred soon after Brent became the new CEO and decided to become a Big Brother. “I was semi turned down,” Brent laughed. “When I joined the agency I was immediately struck by the power of mentoring. So, it seemed logical that I should become a Big. I wanted to walk the talk. I told the program staff that I wanted to become a Big Brother and they said, ‘We’ll begin the process.’ In one of the enrollment interviews I noticed that the interviewer wanted to say something, but that she was uncomfortable. I finally said, ‘I feel a tension here. Could you just say what’s bothering you?’ And she said, ‘Well, Mr. Fields, I’m not sure you should be a Big Brother right now.’”

“I said, ‘Really? Could you tell me more about that?’  and she said, ‘You just became our new CEO, you’re a new dad to your third child, and you have a lot going on. Is this really the right time for you to take on a mentoring relationship with a vulnerable child who needs your full attention?’” Brent said. “And you know, the minute she uttered those words, I knew she was absolutely right. I went home that night disappointed that I shouldn’t be a Big at that time, but I’ve never been more proud of our program and of how we put kids’ needs first. That is a great example of the thought and intention that goes into what we do.”

A year or two later Brent did become a Big, when the time was right. “To this day, being a Big has been one of the most transformational experiences of my life,” Brent continued. “But it does say a lot about fit and timing. And we’re really good at figuring that out and at helping people determine when the time to volunteer is right.”

Getting it right. Making an impact in a child’s life. It’s one of the things Brent loves about BBBS. “So many non-profits define their success in terms of how big their budget is or how many clients they serve,” Brent said. “I love that we don’t just count activities and clients, but we count impact. I think it’s crucial in this day and age when there is so much need and it’s so important to use every dollar wisely, that you know what kind of impact you’re having. It’s not enough that we serve 1,000 kids a year, it’s important that we know we’re making a difference in their lives. I love that about this organization. It’s what gets me up in the morning and makes me excited about being here.”

“And I love sharing with people that at the end of the day our highest calling, our greatest obligation is to these students and their family members,” Brent concluded. “We can’t afford to get it wrong. We can’t take shortcuts. I’m really proud of that.”

“In the past year, we have moved into a new facility. We have developed some new programs and initiatives. We have a dedicated, highly skilled staff in place. Our model of mentoring provides life-changing benefits for children, families and volunteers, and our program metrics are at an all-time high. With all of these ingredients in place, our greatest challenge, and our greatest opportunity, is to raise the funds that will allow us to serve more kids.”

“We have a lot to be thankful for, and much to look forward to.”

See our video interview with Brent Fields here

Spotlight on Sergio Guzman

“There are always ways to grow,” says Sergio Guzman, Big Brothers Big Sisters’ bilingual match support specialist. It’s a comment that sums up Sergio’s work philosophy and his focus on creating growth opportunities for matches.

“You wear a lot of hats in this job,” Sergio explained. “In addition to assisting and monitoring 85 matches, I coordinate the workplace mentoring program we have with Rackspace. We work with Webb Middle School and I maintain a good relationship with the vice principal and counselors there. I also work on planning activities with our Rackspace contacts and organizing BBBS’ Brother 2 Brother match activities.”

It’s a lot of responsibility. “I just try to step in and help whenever I can,” Sergio said.

A University of Texas grad who’s been in Austin for over 10 years, Sergio started as an English major, but after working with a program called Longhorn Scholars, which reaches out to kids who wouldn’t normally consider attending college, he realized he had a heart for social work. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work he stayed in Austin and is now celebrating his five-year anniversary at BBBS.

With a variety of duties and a large case load, one of the challenges Sergio faces is that of trying to make face-to-face contact with all of his clients. “I’m a firm believer that support is best delivered in person,” Sergio said. “When you can put a face to the person you’re talking with on the phone, that really helps to establish a good relationship. I still get to meet with families and Bigs; however, it’s not as often as I’d like it to be.”

Sergio clearly has a passion for his work and for BBBS. “The thing I enjoy most about working here is BBBS’ mission,” Sergio continued. “During these times when there is a lot of chaos in the world, it’s important to remember that our kids are the future. Mentoring provides that extra support that kids need to face the obstacles they have in their everyday lives. I find comfort in knowing that I am doing work with a purpose, and that my work is helping to strengthen the community as a whole.”

Sergio has experienced the positive impact of mentors in his own life. His high school band director pushed him to strive to reach his highest potential, which resulted in his not only being the first in his family to leave his hometown of Laredo, but also the first in his family to graduate from college.

When Sergio is not at work he loves to explore the Austin music scene. “I have an eclectic taste in music,” he said. “Everything from attending electronic rock venues to listening to the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Long Center.” He also enjoys travel and video games such as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Smash Brothers.

“BBBS is a great place to work. I love our team mentality. Everyone is supportive of, and helpful toward, one another,” Sergio said. “And, with the addition of some new staff members, I also have the opportunity to be a workplace mentor.”

It’s the perfect opportunity for Sergio, who is always looking for ways to grow and to help others do the same.

The Spirit of Giving

Many Bigs cite “wanting to give back” as their main reason for getting involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. It’s not surprising then that they inspire this volunteer attitude in the Littles they mentor as well. On any given week you will find BBBS matches volunteering at animal shelters, working in community gardens, donating food to families in need, and doing many other service-oriented projects. So, after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, Bigs and Littles were ready to lend a helping hand.

Little Sister Tyranee and her Big Sister Janice have been matched for almost a decade. Spending time giving back to the community and to those in need is something that has become second nature to the pair. So, when they heard about ways the community could help hurricane victims, they got busy.

“Mayor Adler was on the news encouraging Austin to donate kits to the Hurricane Harvey evacuees,” Janice said. “My church was getting involved and I asked Tyranee if she wanted to help. Without hesitation she said, ‘Sure, I’d like to do whatever I can,’ and that just melted my heart.”

The two went shopping to get supplies for the hurricane relief kits as one of their regular outings. “I wanted her to have the opportunity to help someone else,” Janice explained. “We had a good time together gathering the items, but it also really helped Tyranee understand what was going on. She kept asking questions about what had happened. She said, ‘Where are the people?’, ‘They lost their homes? Oh, wow, I can’t imagine that.’”

“After we were finished she said, ‘It felt really good to help out.’ This project helped her realize that even when you don’t have a lot of resources, there are always things that you can do to help someone else.”

Tyranee, who is 18, also contributed some of her own money from her part-time job to the cause. A powerful demonstration of the impact the experience had on her – and an example of how someone who has overcome her own obstacles is helping others to overcome theirs. “Tyranee has been through a lot,” Janice continued. “She’s moved almost every year since we’ve been matched. She and her younger brother had opportunities to choose a different path in life that did not include completing high school and college. But they didn’t, and I’m so proud of them! They’ve been able to overcome difficulties of their own.”

Getting involved in the hurricane relief effort is just one example of how Janice has seen Tyranee grow since they’ve been matched. “I’ve seen Tyranee change tremendously, from being afraid of venturing out to try new things to now speaking up and getting involved,” Janice said. “My church, Wesley United Methodist, has offered her opportunities to speak in front of people through their different programs. That’s something Tyranee said she would never, ever do… but she has. The last time she spoke, I was sitting there video recording her and becoming very emotional at the same time. It’s just been amazing to see her growth.”

As they watch their Littles grow, Bigs often comment that their Littles will make good Big Brothers or Sisters one day. It’s something that frequently happens as former Littles pursue the opportunity to make a difference for others the way their own Bigs have made a difference for them.

Tyranee is now a high school senior and she wants to go to college, as does her younger brother. She plays on her high school’s volleyball team and is very interested in cosmetology. She is currently taking courses on the subject.  “It’s all because of BBBS that we were put together,” Janice remarked. “What an awesome organization.”

For Tyranee and Janice, as for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, it’s all about turning tough situations into something positive. “Tyranee has been through a lot, but she is moving forward in a positive way, that’s what is so awesome about her,” Janice said. “She has a beautiful heart. I know she’s going to do well in life.”

Mentoring Tips for Each Stage of the Match Relationship

Tips from BBBS staff regarding things you can do to move your match along through each stage of the relationship:

Early Development Stage – This stage is largely about getting to know one another, establishing routines, and building trust.

  • Without prying, learn facts about your Little and reference them in your conversations, eg: favorite things, best friend, where they’ve traveled.
  • Be consistent and flexible. Do what you say you are going to do.
  • Be patient and remember that relationships have ups and downs, they don’t just happen by themselves.

Growth Stage – During this stage of the relationship, Littles may try to test Bigs to find out where the boundaries in their relationship are and to determine if their Bigs are going to leave. Bigs may desire some input from Littles.

  • Show your Little that he/she can trust you through your reliability, consistency and time together. As trust develops, your Little will probably begin sharing bits of information with you.
  • Keep in close contact with your Match Support Specialist for ideas.
  • Recognize and praise accomplishments.
  • If you need to give advice or address behavior problems, give reasons and avoid “shoulds.”

Maturity Stage – By this stage, Bigs and Littles have typically developed a comfortable and familiar relationship with one another.

  • Develop long-term shared interests and activities that you do frequently together and that you both enjoy.
  • Identify and celebrate past shared experiences and enjoy shared jokes.
  • Learn something that is new to both of you, together.

The Stages of a Match Relationship

You hear the stories, you see the results, and you’re interested in becoming a Big Brother or Sister. What is one of the most important things you need to know before becoming a Big?

It takes time.

“It takes time,” said Ellen Harsch, enrollment supervisor at BBBS. “It takes time for any person to build a relationship with someone else, but it especially takes time for kids to build trust and to form meaningful relationships, particularly with new adults that they don’t know at all.”

This is something new Bigs can easily forget at the beginning of a match as they get caught up in their enthusiasm to help, to mentor and to make a difference. The time factor can also get lost behind preconceived notions regarding how a match “should” progress. Consequently, BBBS holds training sessions for Bigs to help them understand the common stages of match relationships.

“Every match is different and moves through the stages at their own pace,” Ellen continued. “But when you look at matches across the board, there are a lot of similar patterns. And it is important for Bigs to understand these stages so that they know what to expect and that they are not alone. For example, if your Little doesn’t immediately trust you, this is normal. Other Bigs experience this too.”

The first stage of a match relationship – the “Early Development Stage” – is about building trust. At this point, Bigs and Littles are trying to figure each other out. Littles may try to get their Big’s approval or to impress them.

“At the beginning of any relationship you’re nervous, excited, and unsure but committed to the relationship,” said Christina Snell, match support supervisor. “There’s an emphasis on getting to know one another, talking, asking questions, and being consistent in the time you give. If you don’t see each other and get to know one another, it’s hard to build a strong relationship.”

Being consistent with communication and time is critical during this early stage, especially during the first 3 months. For Bigs with younger Littles, it’s even more important, as parents are working to feel comfortable with the Big/Little relationship as well.

“We had 8 and 9-year-old siblings in a match who were home-schooled by their mom and the match had to adhere to a rigid schedule,” said Christina, “because younger kids work better with a schedule and so do parents. With every match, the parent or guardian, the Little, and the Big all need to work together to find the rhythm and pace that works best for them so that they are all on the same page.”

“At the beginning of a match, if the parent doesn’t offer as much support, a Big may also need to be prepared to take the initiative to keep match activities and plans going,” Christina added.

After the initial stage, matches move into what is described as the “Growth Stage.” This is probably the most crucial period in the development of the Big/Little relationship, possibly even a turning point in the relationship. It is common during this stage for Littles to test their Bigs to learn more about them and to find out how much they can get away with. The Little may also be observing the Big to find reasons not to not trust them or to determine whether the Big will leave.

“During the Growth Stage matches often say, ‘Okay, we know each other. We’re in an established relationship. Now what?’” Christina said.  “This is when they need to start exploring interests and activities, and doing new things that might be outside of their comfort zone, just to keep the excitement alive and the relationship moving forward.”

“This is also when Bigs may start wanting and needing more input from their Littles. Bigs will sometimes say ‘I’d like my Little to give me ideas for match activities,’ ‘I need them to say thank you,’ or ‘Does my Little really like me?’” Christina said. “At this point Bigs sometimes start to question the match. For example, if a match is doing the same thing all the time – going out to eat or to the movies, the Big may tell us ‘There’s got to be more to the match than this.’ But when we ask the Little about the match they’ll say ‘This is everything to me. This is just what I need.’ So, we remind Bigs that their Littles just enjoy being with them. They don’t care as much about the type of activities they do with their Bigs as they do about the time spent together. This is also a stage at which BBBS’ match support team can offer suggestions and recommend new activities.”

The next stage in the match relationship is the “Maturity Stage,” a point at which the match relationship has become more positive and realistic, and where activities are often less structured. By this point most Bigs have shed their preconceived notions regarding the match and their Littles. Bigs have also often seen their Littles grow and develop.

“This is the coolest level. This is when they really get it,” said Christina. “By this point the Big has shown that they’re committed to the relationship, that they are not going anywhere, and that they know they’ve just got to keep the conversation going. Both Big and Little realize that they are in the match relationship to be friends, and that the Big needs the Little as much as the Little needs the Big.”

According to BBBS’ match support team, this is also the point when both Bigs and Littles need to be reminded of the importance of their relationship. “People get really comfortable in relationships and may feel taken for granted,” said Christina. “At this stage, we offer a lot of positive reinforcement and feedback. We let the Big know that their Little’s family has a lot of good things to say about them and that they are so grateful for the time they give. And we let the family know how much the Big looks forward to spending time with their child. This support reinforces and validates the relationship so that Bigs and Littles know they are on the right track.”

Helping Bigs, and families, understand the natural stages of a match relationship is another way BBBS provides match relationships with the support they need to thrive. “We want happy participants,” said Ellen.

Happy participants lead to positive mentoring relationships, which lead to more kids succeeding in life. It’s all just a matter of time.

Chris & Jeremiah: Growing Together

Little Brother Jeremiah could hardly contain his excitement when he finally got to meet his Big Brother Chris three years ago. Despite his enthusiasm however, Jeremiah was not completely ready to trust in this new relationship. In fact, according to his guardian, it was hard for him to trust any adult since he felt most adults in his life had walked out on him. However, his new Big Brother began to change all of that.

“He had no self-confidence,” said Chris. “He’d moved around between homes and hadn’t had any stability. He didn’t have anyone who was giving him attention for any extended time. I began talking to him about the things he was great at and the things I loved about him. I told him about ways I had failed in the past and ways that I had overcome adversity, helping him to see that it’s okay to fail and that failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure or a bad person.”

One activity that stands out as a huge confidence builder for Jeremiah is the reading the two have done together before their regular outings. When the match began, Jeremiah could barely read and had been held back for his second grade year. “So, I shifted the focus of our outings to education,” Chris explained. “During the first 45 minutes of each visit we would get kolaches, go to my house and spend time reading and writing. Then we would go swimming.”

Chris often took a creative approach to helping Jeremiah learn.  “I noticed that he loved technology and always wanted to play with my phone,” Chris continued. “So, I started having him text members of my family, pranking them into thinking it was me. Jeremiah loved it and came up with the most off-the-wall-texts, but he was reading and writing.”

The creative approach plus the structured reading time paid off as Jeremiah passed his grade level and made all A’s and B’s this past year. “He’s proud of himself and I let him know that I am proud of him too,” said Chris. “I’m especially proud of him for continually trying, and working, and overcoming adversity.”

The pair also spend time going to video arcades, bowling, roller skating and swimming. Jeremiah has gotten to know Chris’ wife and son as well.

“Jeremiah is a great kid. He’s become family,” said Chris. “Sometimes I’m a father figure, or a brother, uncle, or friend. There’s a lot to love about him.”

“My upbringing was less than ideal, and spending time with Jeremiah helps me reframe my childhood. It helps me see it through the eyes of an 8 or a 10-year-old,” said Chris. “This is one of my closest relationships. I’m glad Jeremiah’s in my life.”

Your support makes life-changing relationships like this possible.  Thank you.

Learn more about our Game Changers program at www.gamechangersaustin.org.

Learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Giving Society here