Meeting mentorship challenges through innovation

By Sarah Parsons
Contributing Writer
In 2010, Big Sisters of Rhode Island, a nonprofit that matches adult volunteer mentors with at-risk youth, made a game-changing decision: For the first time, the organization would expand its work to mentor girls and boys. The organization adopted its current name, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State, to embrace its new mission and broader service population. More

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Meeting mentorship challenges through innovation

NO TRICK FOR THIS TREAT: AJ Taveras, left, at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State’s Halloween party with his mentor, James Conway, of Warwick, center. At far right is big brother Joseph Yanish of Cranston.
By Sarah Parsons
Contributing Writer
Posted 12/17/12

In 2010, Big Sisters of Rhode Island, a nonprofit that matches adult volunteer mentors with at-risk youth, made a game-changing decision: For the first time, the organization would expand its work to mentor girls and boys. The organization adopted its current name, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State, to embrace its new mission and broader service population.

Staff members thought the move would expand the organization’s reach, promote the need for male mentors, and begin to help some of Rhode Island’s boys between the ages of 7 and 15. There was just one problem: BBBSOS couldn’t find enough big brothers to volunteer as mentors.

“It’s easier for women to see themselves as caring and nurturing,” said Deborah Saunders, BBBSOS’ executive director. “It’s harder for men to see themselves as role models.”

Saunders and staff knew that they couldn’t let this challenge prevent the organization from helping the state’s thousands of at-risk boys. According to the BBBSOS website, at-risk can include any of the six factors identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as putting children in jeopardy for future success, such as a child who is not living with two parents or who does not have health insurance, for example.

So rather than give up, they innovated: This May, BBBSOS launched its “Big Couples” program, matching young boys with married couples or partners in a civil union. Saunders said that the organization already has one married couple mentoring two children, and several others are in the process of becoming mentors.

“The young boys responded really well – they’ve got two people that they can count on,” Saunders said. “I think it’s going to be a very successful program.”

Innovating to grow and overcome challenges has been a trend over BBBSOS’ 45-year history – one that’s been extremely successful. The organization now serves more than 500 at-risk youth in Rhode Island and parts of Massachusetts every year. According to Steven Porter, BBBSOS community-outreach specialist, kids involved in the organization’s mentorship program are more than 80 percent more likely to stay in school, have high self-esteem and make solid life choices than if they didn’t participate or have the benefit of this kind of role model.

And while other nonprofits have struggled with funding – especially over the last several years – BBBSOS actually saw a $270,000 increase in revenue between 2010 and 2011.

Saunders attributes BBBSOS’ success to its forward-thinking board of directors, dedicated staff, quality programs and measurable outcomes. But the organization saw financial success in large part because of its social entrepreneurship model.

BBBSOS collects donations of used clothing and household items. According to its website, some items may be distributed to “littles” in need. Most is sold to thrift stores like Savers, to generate the revenue that supports its programs and operations. About 60 to 70 percent of the organization’s funding comes from these sales.

To that end, staff and board members have made a concerted effort to build up the organization’s donation program. Over the past two years, BBBSOS increased its number of donation bins throughout the state from 22 to nearly 100. It now employs 37 people at the organization’s donation centers, call centers and donation trucks. And this past year, the organization launched refurbished donation trucks and opened a second donation center. It plans to open its third donation center in Cumberland this November.

To make donating clothes or household goods more convenient, pickups can also be arranged.

“We have been able to offset the loss of federal grants and the effects of our lagging economy by focusing our fundraising attention not only on special events, but on our clothing donation operations,” said Porter.

Forward-thinking programs also make BBBSOS one of the most effective nonprofits in the state. For example, the organization launched its Amachi program to provide mentors to children with incarcerated parents. According to Saunders, nearly 4,000 children throughout the state have at least one parent in jail. BBBSOS hopes that its mentorship program can break the cycle of violence and incarceration, helping kids make different choices than their parents did.

BBBSOS received a $1 million grant from the federal government for the program in 2010. However, just one year later, the government pulled all grant funding for this type of work.

BBBSOS staff got to work and figured out a way to keep the program up and running. They applied to The Rhode Island Foundation for a grant. With funding from the foundation, revenue from donation-center clothing contributions and other donations, BBBSOS was able to save its Amachi program.

“When you have a belief you can make something happen, it becomes a snowball,” said Saunders. “It continues to grow, and there’s a sense that there isn’t anything we can’t do.”

The organization continues to diversify in the types of people it works with – both children and adults. BBBSOS launched a site-based program nearly two years ago, setting up mentorships with athletic teams from a nearby college. BBBSOS now has site-based programs with teams at Bryant College, Salve Regina University, the University of Rhode Island, Brown University, Providence College and Roger Williams University.

Saunders said the organization hopes to continue expanding and creating new programs in the future. BBBSOS is looking into creating a program specifically for youth who have been through the juvenile justice system. By providing mentorships and interventions for first-time offenders, mentors can hopefully prevent any future run-ins with the law. BBBSOS staff members are also looking to work with Rhode Island’s Native American populations.

But despite BBBSOS’ 45 years of success, the organization’s staff members say that there’s still a need to grow and expand to meet demand.

“I’m not sure I would agree that we are thriving financially, as it implies that we have all the money we need,” said Porter. “There are still many, many more children who need mentors in their lives, and any additional funding helps us reach and support them.”

Indeed, growth is a central part of BBBSOS’ mission. Despite the fact that it services hundreds of children every year, staff members hope to greatly expand that number in the immediate future.

“There are still more than 100 children who are currently on our waiting list,” said Roxanne Trenteseaux, a program director at BBBSOS. •

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