Celebrating Fifty Years
It began as the dream of a few concerned men in Austin who wanted to help fatherless boys reach their true potential, rather than end up in the juvenile justice system. From these humble beginnings fifty years ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas has grown and changed. And now, in 2021, the agency is excited to celebrate its Golden Anniversary.
“It’s such an honor to be part of the BBBS team during this important milestone year – marking 50 years of transformational service to the community of Central Texas!” said Brent Fields, CEO of BBBS. “I’m mindful of the fact that our current staff, mentors, and supporters are standing on the shoulders of BBBS giants, who founded, grew, and sustained the mission over these many years.”
It was in the early 1960s that several men recognized the need for adult mentorship for boys in Austin. At first the group focused on helping boys without fathers, and then their efforts grew to address the needs of boys in Juvenile Court. These early initiatives were hampered by not having an organization in place to recruit mentors and to work with big and little brothers once a match was made. As one early organizer put it, “You have to have continuous contact with both Brothers. Otherwise they lose interest.”
Long-time community leader Lonnie McArthur was one of the agency’s original founders. With the help of some of his neighbors in the Tillotson-Heights area, he initiated a program called the “Dads and Sons Club”, while also hoping he could bring the Big Brother program to the Central Texas area. He believed the one-to-one philosophy of the national Big Brothers program was the difference-maker for at risk boys.
At the same time, another Austinite was working to bring the Big Brother program to Austin as well. Father Richard McCabe, the head of Catholic Charities of Austin, funded an unofficial Big Brothers program for about eight years by paying a coordinator to recruit volunteers to work with boys referred to the Juvenile Court.
One of the early coordinators was Probation Officer Louis Guerrero who was given the additional task of working with the boys coming through the court system and matching them with Big Brothers. “The problem I had was I didn’t have enough time to recruit Big Brothers,” said Guerrero. The initiative needed a full-time coordinator.
In the summer of 1970, these early organizers found the answer to beginning a full time Big Brothers agency – Larry Guillot. “It was really Larry that got it going,” Father McCabe said. “He re-stimulated our interest and helped sell the idea to the Juvenile Board for the proper funding.”
On October 1, 1971, Big Brothers of Austin officially began operation with Larry Guillot as the agency’s first Executive Director. In three months, the agency grew from serving 5 to 25 matches. Within a few short years, the organization had grown to include a professional staff that worked with almost 300 matches a year from an office at St. David’s Episcopal Church at 308 E. Seventh St.
“We try to give each boy a chance to reach potential growth in all areas,” Director Guillot said at the time. “The agency’s success has been called ‘miraculous,’ since so many of our Little Brothers grow up and become Big Brother volunteers.”
An example of this is former Little, former Big Brother, and former BBBS board member Joe Morales. Joe’s involvement with BBBS began when he was 11 years old, three years after his father had left the family. “Thank goodness my mother had the foresight to know I needed a positive male influence in my life,” Joe recalled. “I was at an age where I was starting to talk back and get a bit rebellious. When I think back on what my Big Brother did for me, it’s amazing. I know where I would have ended up without the organization…. The beauty of it is, I’m here… talking about BBBS and watching the organization grow so that it can have that life-changing effect on even more children and families.”
In 1975, the organization once again responded to a need in the community and began serving girls as well. Big Brothers became Big Brothers Big Sisters of Austin.
BBBS launched several signature initiatives and events in the 1980s. A Big Couples program was established, offering married couples with or without children the opportunity to mentor a child in need. The first annual Hobie Day launched, giving Littles the chance to ride on Hobie Cat sailboats. Bowl for Kids was established in 1983 and became one of BBBS’ signature annual fundraisers. And in 1986, BBBS’ Scholarship Program began, offering a $2,000 incentive for Littles to pursue a post-secondary education. All of these initiatives still exist today.
During this active decade BBBS also moved into new offices on Tillery Street in east Austin. The organization remained there for the next 28 years. During this time, the organization also became Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas and rose to be named one of the top five BBBS chapters in America, serving over 1,000 kids in the Austin area.
In 2005, Helping Austin launched BBBS’ signature fundraising event – the Ice Ball Gala, with proceeds benefiting BBBS. BBBS ultimately took over the administration of the event which has raised more than $5 million for the agency since its inception.
BBBS’ next major milestone came when the organization celebrated its 45th anniversary. In 2016, BBBS of Central Texas once again changed to better serve the community by relocating to the newly completed Bennett-Rathgeber Mentoring Center. Built specifically for the agency, the new facility allows BBBS to hold meetings, activities, and events onsite and to better meet the needs of volunteers, clients, staff, and the community at large. BBBS held its first Big Fall Carnival onsite in the fall of 2016 with more than 300 Bigs, Littles, families, friends, donors, and neighbors in attendance. BBBS also began to offer meeting room space to community groups, and to hold monthly Youth Activity Center Nights that allowed matches to come together to enjoy evenings of recreation and socializing.
In 2016 BBBS established the Big Futures program to provide ongoing support to Bigs and Littles beyond the high school years and into young adulthood. BBBS created the Giving Society, a group of philanthropic leaders focused on increasing the agency’s capacity to serve children and families in Central Texas. Committed to increasing support for the agency in a variety of ways, a new group of BBBS volunteers also organized as the Big Impact Group.
In 2020, COVID began to impact the community, and, once again, BBBS pivoted to address the need. Agency leadership understood that, while COVID affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally. The pandemic only served to amplify the struggles that the children and families BBBS serves were already facing. In response, BBBS transformed the way it delivers its services, moving everything from recruitment, to training, to fundraising, to making and supporting matches, online.
It is what BBBS has always done. Throughout its 50-year history, the agency has continued to innovate and adapt to help children reach their full potential. Whether it’s serving five boys or 1,000, the one constant throughout this half-century of achievement has been BBBS’ commitment to meeting community needs.
“It’s only right that we pause to remember our history, celebrate our achievements, and allow this moment to inspire a bright future for the mission,” said Fields. “While the service of BBBS has been great over the past five decades, the need has never been greater, and we have much important work yet to do. I think our best days are ahead, and I am energized by the legacy we’ve been so fortunate to inherit.”
Bring on 2021.