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Little Things, Big Deals
Laura Capello of Big Brothers Big Sisters
It’s not easy to set your sights on a new or different path without some leadership,” observes Laura Capello, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona. “It is easy to sit in judgement over how our youth should be doing things, but until you really understand their perspective and the framework of their life, it’s pretty hard to make blanket statements.” Working with more than 1,500 Valley kids a year, Capello and her staff understand the realities of growing up with challenges.
“We see wonderful kids in our programs who face the realities of poverty, single house leadership, domestic violence, food insecurity and even homelessness,” she points out. It’s a discouraging and heartbreaking topic. The most vulnerable of our community are arguably children who through no fault of their own face the daily challenge of surviving and ultimately escaping the cycle of poverty.
For most of us the subject is so intense and overwhelming, it seems easier to focus on philanthropic issues such as the arts or even plants. Tackling topics that seem less stressful and easier to navigate come to mind. Let’s face it, issues that confront our human frailties and children stuck in the middle can be daunting.
“Oh, but it’s so much more than that!” Capello exclaims. “We have the opportunity to make significant change in the life of a child and that translates across the board to their family as well.”
It’s hard not to see the possibilities and transformative impact that Big Brothers Big Sisters has when speaking to Laura. The mother of three grown children and now a grandchild, the vibrant leader exudes confidence and mirrors achievement when discussing the topic of children.
Matching adults with children ages 6 to 18, Big Brothers Big Sisters is an innovative program that started 110 years ago. Ernest Coulter, a New York City court clerk realized that troubled youth appearing before the court could be diverted away from problems if they had adult mentors to keep them on a productive path. He started the mentor movement by matching up volunteers with children. The effort was small, but impactful and soon other cities across the nation were starting their own programs.
By 1912, the same year Arizona would become a state, the organization had expanded into 26 American cities actively running their own Big Brothers Big Sisters programming. In 1955 Phoenix launched its first program which was innovative and impactful for a state that was only four decades old.
Over the years, virtually every American president and their family has publically supported the organization. From Teddy Roosevelt who served as the Big Brothers Big Sisters treasurer in 1923 to the Obamas promoting National Mentoring Month at The White House, presidential leadership has been in full support of the program across both aisles.
Understanding the needs of leading children is not new. Managing that process in modern times is. “It costs us $1,200 to match a Big with a Little, explains Capello. “We carefully vet our volunteer mentors with an extensive layered background check.” This allows for safe, secure and long-term matching. In addition, volunteers meet with program specialists to talk about their expectations so they can be matched with a child who shares their interests. This process allows for safe, secure and successful matching that can blossom into long-term friendships.
“Our kids are looking for Bigs that will be with them for a long time,” she adds. A Big matched to a Little requires a minimum six-month requirement. Some matches may only last a year, but many continue for several years. In many cases, matches will extend beyond the youth’s program time with adult friendships continuing.
A large part of the process is encouraging Littles to work hard in school and invest in their education so that the prospect of attending college is real and not fantasy. “So many of our kids are the first generation to even consider college and in many cases they are the few, or even the first of their family to graduate from high school.” It is in this manner that Big Brothers Big Sisters looks upon itself as a prevention model organization. “We are working with our kids to encourage them towards making better choices, pursuing education and learning about the world in a way that they might not ever have the chance.”
The other aspect of making healthy matches that endure is the structure which Big Brothers Big Sisters works. “Each match is given a case worker,” explains Capello. “We have degreed, educated, professional social workers who are trained to engage with the families, schools and social net of each child.” This allows for the adult volunteers to have a support system behind them that can address challenges or deep issues.
Laura recalls a recent occasion when a Big was faced with a Little whose single mother was being evicted from her home. “Big Brothers Big Sisters jumped in and found the struggling family resources to help them through the hardship. We want our Bigs to serve as mentors, they can’t solve all the problems, but they can listen, offer support and guide their Littles through tough times.”
So what does that really mean? “It can be as simple as just hanging out, throwing a football around, going for a hike or helping with homework.” The average Big spends time with their Little for a few hours each month and in some cases they go directly to their school during lunch. Big Brothers Big Sisters organizes events and continually offers ideas for their volunteers. “We often see our Bigs organizing things to do with other Bigs, it brings groups of people together working towards the same goals,” Capello says.
Laura, who is a Big to a Little, is just like any other volunteer. “It’s hard for me not to take her shopping and just buy her everything she needs,” Capello admits. “Instead, I try to show her how her life can be different when she grows up. I continuously remind her that she has the power to achieve success in school, get an education, earn a degree and navigate through the challenges so she can reach her goal of becoming a nurse.” This is the true gift of a Big. “It really is amazing that one person, backed by the resources of our organization, can have such a tremendous impact,” Capello reflects. “Even I am transformed by my Little and it is some of the best parts of me, making me who I am.”
But, not everyone is lucky enough to engage with the award-winning program. “Unfortunately, we have nearly 300 kids on a waiting list,” Capello explains. The truth is there could be even more, but the waiting list is capped as to avoid tremendous disappointment. “We have so many kids, mostly boys of color who are searching for a Big. We need more men to step up and find it in their hearts to give back.” By showing how to live, be successful and navigating the ups and downs of life, the lessons shared are astounding. “Is everything perfect with our Bigs?” Laura asks. “Of course not! We have normal lives that can be messy and stressful, but when we share ourselves the reward is priceless.”
Laura Capello has her hand and heart on so many Arizona families. The community leader is a volunteer and quietly living the journey as do so many of her fellow Bigs. She will probably never truly know the impact her organization has on our community.
For Littles, who grow up to be Bigs, that is a cycle that Laura wants to foster. “When we have grown men and women coming back to volunteer because a Big impacted their life so many decades ago, I know our program is working. That’s the magic of building relationships and leading the way for kids.”