Local Big Brothers Big Sisters Organization
Celebrates 50 Years of Service

By Sasha Manley

Over the last 50 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas has been transforming lives through its non-profit organization. Their one-on-one mentoring program continues to enrich and inspire the youth in our area. They will celebrate this tremendous milestone in September.

The Central Carolina region joined BBBS in 1972. Over 900 children were served in Mecklenburg, York and Cabarrus Counties last year. Its mission is to use one-on-one connections to support the youth’s developmental success from ages 6 to 14.

With school-based and community-based outreach, the program focuses on four areas for this positive result, “Educational Success, Avoidance of Risky behaviors, Mental Well-Being and Socio-economic Opportunities.” About 70 percent of the children enrolled come from single-parent homes and 11 percent have at least one parent incarcerated.

Through the years, much change has happened. Most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. CEO Donna Dunlap joined BBBS 6 years ago and shared with me how their mission continuously adapts to the needs of the mentors and mentees. “Today, our young people are struggling academically and are facing mental health challenges more so than they have in the past due to the pandemic. As a result, we have had to make more resources available to them through their mentor, school and family,” said Dunlap. These resources include training for staff members.

The digital age has provided another extension of support, Dunlap added. “Technology and tech-use competency are so important today. We focus on ensuring our young people have access to technology and connectivity. In addition, we are finding creative/safe ways to use it to help their mentors connect virtually, prepare their schoolwork and plan for their future.”

Mentorship matters

Big Sister/Little Sister Donna Julian and 11-year-old Hannah (pronounced “Hon’nah”) Butler were connected nearly two years ago during the pandemic. Since then, the two have developed a meaningful bond.

Julian first came to the organization as a board member for seven years, then as board chair for two years. She knew becoming a mentor was a part of her plans, “I knew at some point when I started, I wanted to be a big sister. I felt like it would be a positive relationship,” Julian said.

Mentoring has given her a much-needed outlet and a different type of connection. Additionally, it breaks up the demands of Julian’s day job as the executive vice president and Spectrum Center general manager of the Hornets Sports and Entertainment. “It’s just a great relationship. We are all working together.” 

Hannah said she goes to the movies with her Big Sister and enjoys hanging out often. “I like to see Ms. Donna. When we get to see each other, it’s really fun,” Hannah said. Tawanna Butler (Hannah’s mother) explains why she decided to put her daughter in the program. “It was an instant extension of my village. I wanted Hannah to meet other women in the community that were leaders and keep her engaged,” Butler said. “So, it was more about extending my village and having other positive women in Hannah’s life.”

Plans for recent donation stream

Earlier this year, philanthropist Mackenzie Bezo donated a record $122.6 million to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. It was a huge surprise for the organization; 38 agencies out of 235 received a portion of the donation. The Central Carolinas region received $2.3 million. Dunlap said the excitement was beyond anything they could have imagined, “My team and my board were ecstatic, humbled, honored. So many positive emotions flood in when something unexpected and impactful happens,” she said.

The Board of Directors has already begun working on ways the funds will continue their mission in mentoring. Dunlap briefly shared three essential plans:

  • Infrastructure expansion by extending the program to age 21 (currently until 18) and increasing education/training to support volunteers/parents  
  • Rainy day fund establishment to help with the organization’s future with a portion dedicated to setting up a quasi-endowment to grow to $3.4 million (capital campaign)
  • 4 to 6 months of cash reserve development

Looking ahead

The future of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas is bright, with plans to increase its advocacy for the LGBTQ and Latino communities, collaborate with other non-profits, organizations, corporations and more.

The 50th Anniversary event will take place on Sept. 24 at the J.W. Marriott Hotel. It will be an invite-only affair with presentations for the BBBS Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) awards.

Live musical performances will feature a local youth choir, two jazz music groups, and Wé McDonald, a finalist on the singing competition show, “The Voice,” in 2016. A special tribute in memory of their regional and national board member, the late Cheslie Kryst who was the 2019 Miss USA, is also planned.

Visit bbbscentralcarolinas.org  to find out how to become a mentor or volunteer, or to request a mentee for a young person.