By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Twice a month, 30 sixth- and seventh-graders at Reid Park Academy in West Charlotte get on a bus that takes them to the nearby offices of LPL Financial, where each of them has lunch with an employee volunteer who also provides one-on-one mentoring on topics such as public speaking, organizational skills and preparing to take tests.
The program, which is funded by LPL Financial at a cost of $1,000 per student, was launched in October by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Charlotte as part of a larger effort by the agency to get more adult volunteers involved in mentoring kids ages five to 18 throughout the community.
“We felt if we could expose these children to what happens in those buildings in different parts of their neighborhood, then we could light a spark that’s going to really create new possibilities for them and their lives,” says Karen Calder, CEO at Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Operating with an annual budget just over $1.5 million and 21 employees, the agency served nearly 1,400 young people in the fiscal year ended June 30, up 10 percent from the previous year.
And with Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx estimating the city arrests 6,000 young people under age 16 every year, “programs like ours really serve as prevention strategies to keep children on the right pathways to be successful adults,” says Calder, who joined the agency in June 2011 after serving as founding executive director of Classroom Central, a nonprofit that provides free school supplies for teachers working in the region’s most impoverished schools.
And Big Brothers Big Sisters is making a difference, she says.
In the most recent fiscal year, she says, every child involved with the agency stayed out of trouble, and 84 percent of those who got involved with the agency when they had grades of C or lower were able to improve their grades.
Eighty-three percent avoided risky behaviors such as drug or alcohol use or involvement with gangs, and 82 percent said they intended to graduate from high school and go to college.
“They have the expectation they will do that,” Calder says, “rather than having lost hope of ever being able to achieve that goal.”
An ongoing challenge for Big Brothers Big Sisters is to find more adult volunteers and sustain itself financially, she says.
Vetting and screening prospective mentors, and helping families understand the needs of their kids and find mentors best suited to them, is time-consuming and costly, Calder says.
And while Big Brothers Big Sisters has nearly 360 “Littles” on its waiting list, it has only 270 prospective “Bigs” in its pipeline, and while most of the kids on the waiting list are boys, most of the prospective mentors are women.
“We are looking for men to be Big Brothers” Calder says.
She also is working to enlist other companies to participate in programs like the one at Reid Park Academy.
The agency, which is part of the “Collective Impact” initiative by United Way of Central Carolinas to recruit 1,000 members, also is working to enlist more donors who can make larger contributions.
And it will hold its annual Bowl for Kids’ Sake fundraising event Feb. 23 at Park 10 Lanes in Charlotte and April 7 at Dave and Buster’s at Concord Mills in Concord.
Calder says Big Brothers Big Sisters not only gives kids a push towards success in life, but it also saves taxpayer dollars.
“It costs $1,000 for us to match and support a child with a mentor,” she says. “The cost of detaining a young person in a juvenile detention center is about $70,000.”