I interviewed Lisa Casey, the Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeastern Wisconsin.
How long have you been doing this?
In January of 2005 I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeastern Wisconsin as Program Director, and in 2007 I became Executive Director.
Do you remember a turning point in your life where you decided you wanted to work with children?
I went to school at Northern Arizona University, and I had one part-time job in a bar and another part-time job at Big Brothers Big Sisters. I was majoring in Parks and Recreational Management, which I had settled on after switching majors four or five times.
I started working at BBBS as a case manager, and it was really fun. I enjoyed hearing the stories from the volunteers about the kids who really needed someone special in their lives. I had been lucky to have people in my childhood that really cared about me and my well-being; they supported me and did what they could to help me succeed. I noticed that many of the kids at BBBS looked up to their volunteer “Big” as the person that listened to them and encouraged them to be the best they could be. Because of this job, I decided to minor in social work.
When I graduated I couldn’t find a job in my field so I worked for a mortgage company doing sub-prime loans. It was really just a job to pay the bills, and I knew right away that the corporate world wasn’t for me.
In 2003 I was in a bad car accident. My boyfriend and I were driving from Texas back to my home in Phoenix and he fell asleep at the wheel and we rolled 3 ½ times going 85 mph. I moved to De Pere, Wisconsin to be with my family during my recovery; I had not planned to stay beyond the time it took me to heal.
I was originally raised in Indianapolis and had lived in bigger cities since then so I wasn’t sure I would fit in and like Green Bay, but when the Program Director position at Big Brothers Big Sisters became available, I decided to give it a try. I loved it! I travel a lot, so I’m able to get my “Big City Fix” on occasion and am always happy to return to Green Bay.
Did you have any low points career-wise where you thought, “I really shouldn’t be doing this?”
The low point occurs on a regular basis when we realize we don’t have the money to do the things we really want to do. We lack unlimited marketing and advertising funds to get enough volunteers in the door to match more children with mentors. That’s probably the only low point, but it’s also my challenge--to go out and raise more money and ensure that the community knows that an investment in this program is an investment that won’t pay off today or tomorrow but will pay off five years down the road and for the long-term.
I don’t see myself getting frustrated, I enjoy the challenge. There are 427 BBBS affiliates across the country, and I’m the youngest Executive Director. So when I go to national conferences, some people act like, “Who do you think you are?” Then when I am able to demonstrate what our agency is doing, and that we’re financially responsible and programmatically capable, they are impressed. I’ve learned by observing and then doing the things that need to be done. So rather than a frustration, it’s stimulating to walk into a room and know people are questioning your abilities and at the end of the day, you have been able to change their minds.
Was it daunting to get that promotion?
I knew I would be going from essentially three priorities a day to twenty, but I told the board, “If you’re willing to take a risk then I’m willing to do it” since they had asked me to apply for the Executive Director position.
I never had to go out and raise money before. I sold Girl Scout cookies once in fourth grade, but I didn’t know how to ask for money on such a large scale. Now I get the opportunity to research companies and go out and talk to corporate leaders and business people. And since I’ve been a Big Sister for 3 ½ years, I have plenty of personal stories to share. We serve around 500 kids each year, so there are all of those stories and situations to share. I was ready for the challenge, what did I have to lose?
When I attended my first national conference after becoming Executive Director, I saw my boss from the first BBBS agency that I had worked at. I thought, “How cool, I love your job and now it is also my job!” She was a real inspiration to me.
What motivates you?
The kids are my biggest motivator. This is my opportunity to give to the community and foster the next generation.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
There are so many organizations and charitable causes that one can give their dollars to, and I love it when donors decide to support us with their giving. It is important to me that we always call and thank them right away. And we have implemented a thank-you-athon at the end of the year just to appreciate them and their connection to our agency. Last year it took 9 months to raise $36,000 through our individual giving campaign, and this year it took us 6 weeks! We’re starting to make personal connections with our donors, and that is such a huge step in helping them realize how important and successful this program really is.
I also love working with the national Big Brothers Big Sisters agency. Helping other local agencies move forward, learning about what’s being done in California or Texas, and learning best practices that work in Atlanta and then being able to bring some of those ideas here. It is exciting to be able to sharing best practices.
I am also pleased that I haven’t lost any staff since I transitioned from being a peer to becoming everyone’s supervisor. That can often create difficulty in office politics and it was my biggest fear.
Do you have a specific story about one of the kids?
I could talk to you about my Little Sister. I’ve been matched with her for 3 ½ years, and like all the volunteers say, I’m not sure who gets more out of it, the “Little” or me. The time commitment isn’t a problem as some people may think. It truly doesn’t take a huge change in your own life to make a big difference in theirs. Even though we ask an initial commitment of 6-12 months, depending on which mentor program you choose, volunteers tend to stay on board much longer. The average match length is over 28 months!
For Mikayla and I, our relationship is going so well. I’ve learned so much from her and she’s learned a lot from me. Some days she asks, “Are we going to be sisters for life?” I love that! She doesn’t have a sister, so it’s a cool thing for both of us. We enjoy doing everyday things. We go to the park, bake cookies, we were involved in gymnastics for a while at the YWCA, we do arts and crafts, we volunteer in the community. We can always come up with something fun to do when we spend time together.
Do you have advice for anyone who wants to get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters?
Yes, do it! There is no better time than now to get involved. We tend to have at least 150 – 180 kids at any given time that are ready to go and waiting for a mentor. Each day that a child has to wait gives them another opportunity to go down the wrong path. People tend to put volunteering on their list of New Year’s Resolutions, or think about doing it at some point in time, but I encourage you not to wait until January to call our office. If at all possible, call now and find out how easy and fun it is! Get enrolled, get yourself matched, and you can spend the whole rest of this year developing a new friendship and mentoring a child.
How does the matching process work?
The volunteer comes in for an hour interview, we contact references and do background checks. They also receive a mandatory training that takes roughly two hours. They’ll learn what it means to be a mentor and what it doesn’t. A mentor is not a parent, a social worker, or a guidance counselor. They are there to be a friend and to listen. Our professional staff will cover challenges that may be faced and how they support the volunteers throughout their relationship.
The children are usually referred to us by a teacher, a guidance counselor, a parent, or a social worker. Then we make sure the child and their parents understand the program and make a commitment to their mentor before they get matched. They have to really want a Big Brother or Big Sister or the relationship won’t work.
What does the future hold for your service and for you?
Personally, I’ll continue to be a Big Sister to Mikayla for years. I’m sure that relationship will continue as long as it can. Some volunteers remain connected to their Littles into adulthood, long after they are no longer a part of our program.
My biggest goal with this agency is to move us to the point that we have enough continuous revenue to balance our expenses. That’s always a challenge because we don’t have bricks and mortar, so we can’t put our investors name on anything. We’re simply providing them with an investment in the future-assuring them that they are making a difference for children in the community. We’re selling children’s’ stories and the opportunity for a better tomorrow.
We are proud to serve 500 youth a year, but there is an estimated 13,000 kids in Northeastern Wisconsin that could benefit from a Big Brother or a Big Sister. We’re barely even touching the surface. I’ll be doing what I do until we reach that goal.
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Big Brothers Big Sisters
Big Brothers Big Sisters’ mission is, “To make a positive difference in the lives of youth through professionally supported mentoring relationships.” The organization professionally matches children who can benefit from relationships with additional, positive role models to volunteer Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Big Couples.
Bigs and Littles are matched based on compatible personalities, hobbies, interests, and geographic location. Activities can include cooking meals, doing homework, playing sports or board games, going to the movies, shopping, visiting museums, attending concerts and school events…the possibilities are truly endless.
If you’re interested in becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, visit http://www.bbbs.org and enter your zip code to find your local agency. If you’re outside the US you can visit http://www.bbbsi.org.
The newest mentoring program at BBBS is Sports Buddies. It is designed to make it even easier for male volunteers to have a positive impact through the simple acts of watching and engaging in sports and outdoor activities together. Sports Buddies commit to meeting with their Little Brother at least twice a month. One of these meetings will take place at a planned BBBS activity. Being a Sports Buddy is currently an initial six-month commitment.
Karina and Sue
“My Big Sister’s name is Sue Pike. She is my best friend. She understands me and I think she’s a wonderful Big Sister. She is a really special person because she is kind, smart, and she has a great personality. I enjoy spending time with her. She helps me a lot with school projects or homework. She also encourages me to do all sorts of things like art. Sue is a great person and a great friend; Sue is an angel.” - Karina
Sue Pike, 2008 Big of the Year, is grateful to have the opportunity to be Karina’s Big Sister. She has found the relationship to be a very rewarding experience. Sue feels that one of her most important roles in mentoring Karina is to encourage her to be the best she can be.
She says about her Little Sister: “Karina has such a great personality and really enjoys people. She has many ‘best friends’ at school. Doing well in school is becoming more and more important to Karina. She is proud of her Mexican heritage and is fluent in Spanish. Here is a young person that is so excited about life and has all the qualities in her that our community and world need in our young people today. She does not have the advantages that many other kids her age have. My role is helping Karina see everything the world has to offer her and what she has to offer the world. She has that spark in her and my role is to make that spark be as bright and strong as it can be.”
Sue and Karina stay busy in a variety of ways. They engage in a number of craft projects, make cut out cookies together, and recently went winter camping with a Big Brothers Big Sisters group. On the trip, they went sledding and cross-country skiing and Karina learned how to ice skate. Sue also benefits from her relationship with Karina and has experienced some of the Mexican culture and food with Karina’s family.
The two often talk about what Karina wants to do with her life, including going to college. They discuss the important qualities that will benefit her as she steps out into the world. She could pursue many different careers and realizes that she needs to do well in school and focus on making good decisions to advance her situation. Sue is optimistic that Karina will do great things in her life and is proud to be a part of her development and enjoys exposing Karina to opportunities and all the possibilities life has to offer.
• reprinted with permission from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeastern Wisconsin.
Big Brothers Big Sisters
Little Moments. Big Magic