Looking For Bigs In Pinellas County
Erica, Seth, Olivia and Skylar are some of the lucky ones; they are among the 16,000 kids in the greater Tampa Bay region who have been matched with a “big” through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay (BBBS). More than 200 other children are waiting to be matched in Pinellas County alone.
Connie Murphy knows what it means to wait. A couple years after leaving an abusive marriage with her son Matt, her boss suggested she consider the program after she recounted an entire weekend where she and Matt baked, cleaned and shopped together.
He convinced her it was a good, safe program and on Matt’s sixth birthday they applied. “We didn’t hear anything for a year and it was hard because the phone would ring and Matt would wonder if he was getting his big. I’ll never forget the day when they did call. Raising a child that has witnessed violence comes with a set of problems, and they had special support for us. There were times when I wondered whether Matt would make it; his father abandoned him and it was hard.”
She ended up working for BBBS and is now a big. “So I’ve been a mom, a big sister, a donor, an employee and probably one of their strongest advocates.”
It costs about $60,000 a year to keep a child in the juvenile system, but only $1,250 year to maintain a match. “A huge percentage of our kids live in zip codes that have the highest juvenile arrest records,” says Stephen Koch, president and CEO at a recent BBBS event in Treasure Island. “We really focus on keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system; we want them to stay in school; we want then to stay with their families … Last year 97 percent of the kids in our program achieved academically and advanced to the next grade, and 97 percent had no interaction with the juvenile justice system, Those are the kind of results we want to see.”
The program in Pinellas County was started as Big Sisters by Clearwater resident Annie Woods. She drove to Tampa where the program was established then realized there must be kids in Clearwater to help. She got 30 women together and was the first big in the county. She got 5-year-old Melita McCormick in 1969 and they have been together ever since.
In 2015 BBBS of Pinellas County merged with BBBS of Tampa Bay; they now serve Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Pasco, Citrus, Hernando and Sumter counties. They also received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, were named the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s 2015 Nonprofit of the Year, and received the Gold Standard Award from the Big Brothers Big Sisters National Leadership Council. “The gold standard award recognizes the quality of our program and we’re very proud of that; and that is because of our stellar, program staff who are second to none,” said Koch.
He also credits volunteers, like Treasure Island resident Mitchell Shenkman with their success. “We call them bigs for short, and we love all of our volunteers; we really do because without them we couldn’t be doing what were doing.”
Rob Van Tassel and his little, Seth have been selected as Big Brother and Little Brother of the Year for Tampa Bay and Florida. The two have been together for eight years and shared their story. It was Van Tassel’s daughter who suggested he get involved with kids. He and Seth share a love for sports, but their start was rocky. “He was quite shy, and I needed to get in there to find it what made him tick,” says Van Tassel, so I did what any good grow up grown up what do, I started bribing him,” he said. Realizing that was not the best method, he turned for help to the match staff at BBBS. “They walked me through the process.”
The evening ended with rousing applause as representatives from Freedom Boat Club of Tampa Bay presented BBBS with a $25,000 donation.
“We decided this year that we would be the ones to give back” said Lisa Reho, the chief operating officer. “We’ve supported Big Brothers Big Sisters for four years now, but this year we decided instead of doing a scattered approach, we would support only this organization.”
Their efforts started out small according to Mick Cronin, general manager. “We would take 25 to 30 kids on boat rides and do a barbecue, and then it escalated.” On May 28 they held a fishing clinic for 200 kids with an hour of training on safety, how to fish and ecology, then took out two groups each of 60 bigs and littles, plus another group of kids and parents associated with the Salvation Army. “I give the credit to Lisa. She started this by contacting Fish and Wildlife and they donated the rods and reels.” Freedom Boat Club recently announced a major national partnership to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
For more information about volunteering or donating go to www.bbbstampabay.org.
Looking For Bigs In Pinellas County