By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine
A countless number of children grow up in homes with strained family relations, absent, busy or unsteady role models. Some children simply lack an adult mentor that has enough time to devote to their education and future. Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Northwest Florida set out to change that in 1989 by uniting children with mentors, or Big Brothers and Big Sisters. The nonprofit organization was nationally founded nearly 115 years ago, but the local Northwest Florida agency is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this November.
The history of the Northwest Florida agency began when Navy Chaplain Valerie "Elery" St. John DeLong was stationed in the region in 1989. At the time there was not a BBBS agency established for her to join and serve as a Big Sister. Through her advocation and assemblage of local community volunteers, a committee of board members was established, funds were raised and the agency opened.
The agency serves a five-county area including Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay Counties. In 2018, the agency served 660 children. This year to date, they have served 560 children with 150 children awaiting matches.
CEO, Paula Shell explained the impact of Big Brothers Big Sisters on the community: “That’s 660 children that in the future, long after I'm gone, are going to be making a positive change in our community. Our program is a long-lasting program. It’s not an immediate result that you see right away. The relationships that we foster do not just change individuals, but they change the community as well. We’re here to inspire and ignite the potential that we see in our Littles by showing them a different way.”
Both recruitment coordinators and match specialists are the backbone of the one-to-one mentorship program. Mentors, or Bigs, are sought out and recruited by specialists at the agency, or through advertisement of the programs. Littles are introduced to the program through guidance counselors, community programs, teachers at school and their parents or guardians. Programs include in- school matches where Bigs spend time with their Littles at school eating lunch or studying together and community matches where Bigs take their Littles out in the community for activities.
To celebrate its 30-year anniversary, BBBS is throwing a birthday party at the end of November. The agency recently moved into a new facility located on 1320 Creighton Road. BBBS has been in the facility since May 13, but had an official ribbon cutting and open house on September 26. Impact 100 and the Bear Family Foundation were instrumental in the fundraising for their first permanent home location.
Q&A with CEO Paula Shell
You’ve been the CEO of Big Brother Big Sister of Northwest Florida since 1997. How did you first get involved with the organization?
Before I came to BBBS, I worked at Lakeview Center for about 12 years, and I managed group homes for adolescent boys and girls. Lakeview Center being a mental health facility, it was challenging work. Not just challenging in regard to responsibilities or workload, but also on the heart, too. I worked really hard over there, and it was just time to make a change, so I started looking around for something else. I came across the advertisement for this position in the classifieds section of the newspaper, and I told my friend at the time, “There’s my job. I found it.” And the rest is history.
Tell me a little about yourself. What do you do outside of work?
Lately it’s been a lot of work and no play. Especially because we’re in the middle of a $1.5 million capital campaign for not only the new facility we moved into, but also for expansion of programs and services. I’m a Big Sister myself. I have been matched with my Little, Hope, for about six years, and I just can’t imagine my life without her. So, every week, I go get her and do something with her. She’s being raised by her great-grandfather, and he’s 89 years old, so she doesn’t have a lot of female influences. We are truly like two peas in a pod, so spending time with her is always fun—it never feels like a duty or chore. I also like to go and enjoy the beach when I get the chance and travel with friends. I’m currently training for a half marathon in February. I try to stay active, which is hard with the workload.
I saw that you studied criminal justice and psychology at the University of West Florida—how does that background help you with your work at BBBS?
It definitely plays a huge role. Right out of college, I worked at Lakeview Center, a mental health facility that encapsulated the entire psychological realm of my studies. Some of those children at the facility were connected to the juvenile justice system. Occasionally, we do have Littles that go down the wrong path, and we’re able to step in and help them, so my education has been instrumental to my work.
What is the hardest part of your job and the most fulfilling part of your job?
The most fulfilling are the matches and their stories. One of the things in the new facility, in my office, is a wall completely covered with match photos. That was really important for me to see the progress along the way—they make me smile. The most rewarding part is seeing the faces of children whose lives have been changed through our work. The most challenging part of my job, I think if you ask any nonprofit executive, is the fundraising. You have to constantly keep that going to maintain what you’re doing and to get to a point where you don’t always feel like you’re climbing up a hill.
Can you tell me about “Bigs with Badges” that launched in January 2017? What led to the creation of that initiative and how has it flourished over the years?
It’s an initiative that came from our national organization. They actually call it “Bigs in Blue.” It was created to try and reflect positivity between youth and police in large inner cities and urban environments. Our national organization decided that the biggest answer for the interracial divide and tensions was relationship building. Who does it better than anyone? Big Brother Big Sister. They launched a national program called “Bigs in Blue” to get law enforcement to step up and become Big Brothers and Big Sisters to help teach Littles in those communities that law enforcement is not bad—they're good. We took that and we decided to expand it a little bit and call it “Bigs with Badges” so that we could tap into not only law enforcement, but firefighters, EMS, corrections, really anyone that wears a badge, so we could grow the relationships with them. Currently, we’re sitting with about 15 Bigs with badges from various entities. Now that we have a full-time volunteer recruitment coordinator, we hope to see those numbers go up.
BIG MATCH STORIES
A UWF graduate, community activist and volunteer, Beverly Mayo, has been a Big Sister for nearly 20 years to four Little Sisters. Unlike many Bigs that are recruited by match specialists, Mayo joined BBBS when she saw a billboard advertisement for the agency. At the time, she had a young son and wanted the chance to mentor a little girl. Mayo graduated from UWF with a degree in health education and actively volunteers with several charities in town, including Loaves & Fishes Soup Kitchen and Alfred-Washburn Center for the homeless. Mayo was matched with her very first Little Sister, Brianna, in 2000. Mayo was a Big Sister to Yvette from 2011-2018 until Yvette moved away, and Mayo has currently been matched with Demayla since 2009 and Ra’Niyah since 2018. Her first Little is now a first-generation college student at FAMU.
“She just recently graduated in Jacksonville. I’m so proud of her integrity. Not just because she went to college and has a good job, but she’s also just such a good person who gives back to her community. That’s one thing I teach the girls is the value of community volunteer work,” said Mayo. She takes all of her little Sisters with her to volunteer in the community. “You benefit, the child benefits and the community benefits by getting involved with BBBS.”
With nearly 20 years of experience as a mentor, Mayo has a lot of advice to give potential Big Brothers or Sisters. She explained that time should never keep a potential mentor from joining the agency. It doesn’t take an excess amount of time or money to influence a child’s life. While many mentors enjoy taking their Littles out for activities that cost money, it’s often the little things that add up or impact children. For Mayo, the influence comes from the power of words, volunteer work and being a consistent support system.
“Two of the most important things, if I had to give advice to other mentors, would be something I have done with every child: number one, make them love to read. Even if it’s comic books or graphic novels. It doesn’t have to be long educational books—because the joy of reading will never leave them and will eventually lead them to educational books and novels. Number two is consistency. Even if you can’t see them every week, call them every week. Consistency is important for a child’s support system.”
Mayo has been an influential role model for all of her Littles and the community. She remains in close contact with both of her prior Littles and encourages her current matches to do well in school by rewarding their hard work with fun activities or trips. She explained that BBBS betters the community one child at a time.
Jenn & Lewis Bear III
The Bear family has been integral to the Northwest Florida agency from its very foundation. Jenn and Lewis Bear III are a husband and wife “Big Duo.” Both highly involved in community nonprofits and volunteer work, they spend their free time traveling, boating, hunting, riding horses and spending time with their Little. They have been matched with their Little Brother Sam since 2011. Lewis has served on the BBBS Governing Board for over 10 years while serving as a Big Brother. “I became a Big because I was always a board member. I felt like, as a board member, we can’t ask the community to do anything that we’re not doing. I also had the time and means to do so. It was a way to give back and help others because kids are the future of our communities,” said Lewis.
Lewis’ family also saw the value in investing in community youth to shape the future. His parents were founding members of the Governing Board over 30 years ago when the agency was first founded. The Bear Family Foundation has offered continuous support for the organization over the years and recently donated a gift to the 30th anniversary campaign. To recognize their contributions, the new BBBS facility is named the Bear Family Foundation Center for Hope.
Lewis has been matched with Sam for nearly eight years. His wife Jenn entered the match pairing so that she had the flexibility and authorization to spend time with Sam and help pick him up or take him to school.
As Lewis explained, Sam quickly became more than just a Little Brother to them: “We don’t have kids ourselves, so he quickly became a part of our family.”
When Sam was younger, Jenn and Lewis made it their initiative to spend one day or weekend with him every week, taking him out to play and have fun. They would take him to the Naval Museum, out bowling, to the movies and out on their boat. As he aged, they became a stable support system for him, in addition to their fun outings.
“The best part about being a Big is feeling like I made a difference in a kid’s life. He’s really a good kid—I wish I was as good as he is when I was a kid. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, and his grades are good. I like to think we have made a difference being a positive role model and family for him.”
Jenn and Lewis have been advocates for Sam’s education since he was in sixth grade. When they discovered he was not attending school or completing assignments on the virtual schooling platform, they intervened and hired a tutor to help him pass sixth grade. Education is a large part of BBBS. Helping Littles to succeed in school is the first step to helping them succeed later in life. Whether its spending time with them, talking about school, physically driving them to school or hiring a tutor, Bigs often have an instrumental role in their Little’s education.
A Pensacola local and current servicemember in the U.S. Navy, Jared Heathcote, has been a Big Brother at the Northwest Florida agency for three years. Heathcote is an Aviation Ordnanceman in the Navy, with 12 years of service under his belt. For the last six years, he has been stationed in his hometown, Pensacola, as an instructor on Cory Station.
Given the close proximity of Pensacola to multiple military bases, servicemembers make up a large portion of Big Brothers and Big Sisters. The Northwest Florida agency prefers to seek out members that will be stationed in the area for three years or more so they can fully commit to the relationship with their Little. Military Bigs, as they are called, are just like Bigs from different occupations, but they wear a uniform.
Just like the "Bigs with Badges" initiative, they promote and foster relationships between youth and the military branches. Heathcote was even the recipient of Big Brother Big Sister’s 2018- 2019 Ron Mobayed Military Big of the Year Award. Witnessing his roommate at the time, a Big Brother in the organization, support and foster a relationship with a child in need of a role model, inspired Heathcote to join BBBS. Over the three years, he has been a Big Brother to two Littles. His current Little is named Elijah.
“We play a lot of basketball, go see movies together, go to the waterpark and we eat—I think we’ve probably tried every pizza and wing place in town because that’s his favorite food,” said Heathcote.
Spending quality time with Littles is essential to being a Big Brother or Sister. For Heathcote the experience goes deeper than just serving as a role model. As he explained, Heathcote is the youngest member of his family, so he never got to experience the role of being a big brother.
“The best part of it is sharing these experiences with him and helping guide him in the right direction as a Big Brother. It’s awesome being able to spend time with him, talk to him, make sure he’s doing well in school and being there if he needs me. Like I’ve told him, I’m just a phone call away. My number hasn’t changed in 10 years, and it probably won’t change in another 10.”
Being an active servicemember in Navy means that Heathcote is subject to order changes. He is currently preparing to be stationed in Japan, but that doesn’t mean his role as a Big Brother to Elijah will end. Ensuring that his Little continues to have a support system and a mentor is important to him. While he plans to always remain in contact with Elijah, he is working closely with a friend on base, who has shown similar interest in becoming a Big, to join BBBS and take over his role as a primary Big Brother.