‘Defenders of potential’

The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay have been “defenders of potential” for decades. They’ve served over 2,400 youth, across nine counties, last year alone and are looking to raise that number substantially this year, as over 650 youth currently fill the waiting lists across their many programs.

Since 2015, when the Pinellas and Tampa Bay chapters of BBBS unanimously voted to merge, the organization has made it a priority to find innovative ways to spread the BBBS model, matching “Bigs” (Bay-area adults volunteer mentors) with “Littles” (children and youth facing some type of adversity).

Stephen Koch, president and CEO of BBBS Tampa Bay.

From the traditional model, community and site-based programs starting as early as five years old, to new programs aimed at older youth like School-to-Work that match high school juniors, and seniors, to local companies, or Big Futures, which allows the valuable Big-Little match to continue into adulthood, BBBS constantly raises the level of their defense.

For President and CEO Stephen Koch, the best way to defend potential is by building relationships, what he calls “a simple concept” that is the essence of BBBS.

“It’s all about creating these wonderful, one-to-one, relationships between kids who can really benefit by having an extra adult role model in their life with an engaged volunteer who we’ve recruited, screened and trained,” Koch says. “We do everything to support our Bigs so that they’re enabled to achieve positive outcomes with the kids. And the positive outcomes impact the volunteers as well. Everybody benefits from these relationships and we develop, and support, these relationships so that we see, over time, terrific outcomes for everyone.”

The outcomes speak for themselves: 99% of 2020’s Littles were promoted to the next grade level; 98% of Littles had no involvement in the juvenile justice system in 2020. But it’s much more than statistics. The testimonies from the participants prove BBBS changes lives on a fundamental level. As Pedro Estrada, a graduate of BBBS’s School-to-Work initiative, explains.  “The program allowed me to tap into professionals that would otherwise have remained inaccessible to me. These were people who have an open mind, and a humble heart, to take the time out of their day to engage with students on a personal level. I have built, and maintained, deep connections with my mentor as have others in the program. We continue to bounce around ideas that lead to me continually evolving into a better and better self.”

With light, now, at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it’s perfect timing for local businesses to connect with BBBS to take on a fall cohort of students in School-to-Work, one of BBBS’s newest ways to make an impact. Now in its fifth year, School-to-Work matches high school juniors, from a specific school, with a volunteer mentor employee at one workplace partner. 

The students visit the workplace once a month, for three hours, until they graduate from high school, combining the core BBBS mentoring relationship model with workplace experience and educational topics. 

“We served over 300 high school students in our School-to-Work programs last year. Each business typically takes between 15 to 30 students. Traditionally, we start with a corporate partner, that wants to be a part of our program, and then we work together to match them with a school,” says Jennifer Libby, vice president of programs at BBBS.

Libby cites a recent partnership between Moffitt Cancer Center and Middleton High school with its bio-med program as an example, but the possibilities are endless. From Nielson to Tech Data, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to the City of Tampa, BBBS spearheads this three-way partnership between themselves, a local business and a school, for maximum success.

“The company, or organization, is always amazed at how effortless we make this for them. We really do the heavy lifting,” Koch says. “We set up the partnership with the school, we arrange the buses and supervise and provide support all the way through the two-year process. We take away the administrative burden for these corporations so they can concentrate on the kids.”

Adds Libby, “there’s just so many benefits. The business builds up morale and provides outreach to future employees. There’s relationship-building from all angles, within the company, and between the mentors and their Littles. We’ve had many positive outcomes develop, like the St. Petersburg/ Clearwater Airport creating an internship for their group or some of our partners offering scholarships to one, or two, of the youth that are graduating in that class. We’ve even had companies hire the Littles once they graduate.”

William Miller, director of community engagements for Nielsen Global Media, a BBBS partner for over four years, says that BBBS makes the process easy for businesses to get involved.

“With School-to-Work, our employees have enjoyed the mentoring relationship with students. Since 2016, we have had over 60 employees participate, many of them returning for multiple sessions,” Miller says. “The program has allowed our employees (mentors) to share their business skills, and life experience, with the students (mentees) and has allowed the students to share their stories, and experiences, with our employees. This perspective has provided a great cross-generational experience for both mentors and mentees…The staff from BBBS has done a great job of facilitating the program and handling the communication, which has made it easy for employees to participate.”

Although School-to-Work shifted to a virtual model during the pandemic, they are, now, actively looking for future partners to launch in the 2021-2022 school year. The timing is perfect to start building a unique match for your company. However you support BBBS, it will be the start of a long-lasting, and rewarding, relationship. As Libby concludes: “That’s what we always look for. We hope to build these friendships for life. Even if matches close because of moves, or things like that,  a majority of our matches always stay in touch in some way.”

To learn more about School-to-Work, or any of the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, reach out to Jennifer Libby at [email protected] or go to the website at bbbstampabay.org.

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