A Look Back at 2020

We know. Most of us would probably rather hide under the covers than look back at the year that was 2020. For many, to say the year was difficult would be an understatement. For Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas however, though there were certainly challenges, 2020 included many bright spots as we found innovative ways to continue serving the community.

“At the beginning of the COVID crisis, we recognized one important truth,” said Brent Fields, CEO of BBBS. “We understood that while COVID affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally. Our Littles face adversity at higher rates than the average young person in America. The pandemic only served to amplify and compound their struggles. We knew our work could not stop. Being a consistent source of support for vulnerable children and families became even more important.”

BBBS began to transform the way the agency delivered its services to address the new realities created by the pandemic. Communication, outreach, volunteer recruitment, volunteer training, enrollment, and match support needed to continue, and going ‘virtual’ was the primary way to achieve this.

“We figured out how to adjust our processes to continue enrolling participants and start matches, how to direct our kids and families to more resources, and how to provide a different level of support through new methods,” says Joe Strychalski, Vice President of Programs. “I’m really proud of our team.”

As we were developing new ways of working with volunteers and families, we also developed new ways of staying connected within our own agency as well. Staff began conducting one-minute check-ins, organizing virtual games and crafts, leading ‘moments of Zen,’ sharing resources, and holding Zoom meetings.

Staff and Bigs got creative as they created online activities to keep matches connected and engaged. There were virtual yoga events, online scavenger hunts, Bingo games, trivia competitions, a career readiness workshop, and even a cultural heritage night.

Our matches also began to innovate. One match began chatting weekly via Zoom and started reading books together.

A Big Brother found an online chess game for Zoom calls with his Little and discovered that it provided an opportunity to strengthen the match relationship while building his Little’s skills and confidence in problem-solving.

A Big Sister worked around her Little’s shyness on video calls by drawing pictures for her Little to color and dropping them off for her. Together they are building a COVID-19 scrapbook.

Our matches have found all sorts of creative ways to continue to show up for one another while interacting from a distance.

As the year progressed and COVID-related restrictions increased, BBBS transitioned its annual Promising Futures Scholarship Ceremony to a virtual format as well. BBBS implemented a socially distanced celebration through the creation of an event web page, video content, and the delivery of “Congratulations” gifts. Donuts, cookies, and swag were delivered to 40 high school graduates who were receiving scholarships for post-secondary education through BBBS’ Promising Futures Scholarship Program.

“I am so proud because they’ve worked very hard” parents said, as graduates posed by their BBBS congratulations yard signs and looked through gift bags full of goodies. Graduating from high school and taking positive steps toward a successful future is a big deal for these students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.

In 2020, participation in BBBS’ Big Futures program increased as well, and the program added several new community partners. Big Futures is an initiative that helps mentees transition to life after high school, whether through job readiness, enlistment in the military, or adapting to college life. Before the Big Futures program began, matches officially ended when BBBS Littles graduated from high school. Since the Big Futures program began in 2016, participation has grown by 500%.

Maintaining funding for these programs and services also required innovation, since more than 50% of BBBS’ funds come from individual donations and fundraising events. Events that had to drastically change in 2020.

“We weren’t allowed to go to the bowling alley, but we were still able to create a virtual, party-like atmosphere for our 2020 Bowl for Kids event,” said Lauren Portley, BBBS Vice President of Development. “Over $95,000 was raised to match at-risk kids with adult mentors. That translated into matching 76 kids on our waiting list!”

The Ice Ball gala is BBBS’ largest annual fundraising event, and with lockdowns in place at the end of the summer, BBBS pivoted and innovated once again. Ice Ball 2020: A BIG Night In was Big Brothers Big Sisters’ first-ever virtual gala. The event raised more than $700,000 to provide life-changing mentoring services for kids in our community, exceeding expectations and raising $100,000 over the fundraising goal.

The event also had the largest audience ever assembled in its history, with viewers tuning in from coast to coast. Because the event was live-streamed, it offered an opportunity for an unlimited number of people to participate from the safety and comfort of their homes. While the format of the event was different than in the past, the magic and impact of the event continued in spectacular fashion.

And, amidst all the challenges and changes, BBBS’s mission shone as bright as ever through our Bigs and Littles.

Big Sister Ashley and Little Sister Brianna were named the National Big and Little Sisters of the Year by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and Little Brother Ian McKenna was recently named one of the top five honorees for the first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’ award sponsored by Nickelodeon, TIME Magazine and TIME for Kids.

BBBS also served the community, and our matches, in a new way by opening our doors as a voting site for the 2020 election. More than 10,000 people passed through our building during early voting and election day, offering convenience for the Mueller and East Austin neighborhoods.

The significance of being a voting site didn’t stop at the building, however.  Several BBBS matches made the trip to vote at our location. Big Brother Chris brought his Little Brother Brayzon to vote for the very first time, almost 5 years to the day that they were first introduced as a match.

And they weren’t the only match to get in on the voting. Other Bigs also showed their mentees how to be a part of the community by modeling civic responsibility too. Big Sister Janice and Little Sister Tyranee, who’ve been matched 13 years, also visited BBBS’ office to cast their votes. “Loved it! What a great experience. I’m glad my Big motivated me to vote,” said Tyranee. “I probably would never have voted otherwise. I’m sure I’m the first to vote in my family.”

“It felt great to watch my Little vote for the first time,” said Janice, “and at the actual site where it all started for us 13 years ago!”

As we reflect on this past year, we are grateful for all that we’ve been able to accomplish and for the ways that we have been able to continue to meet the needs of those who rely on us. For all of 2020’s challenges, our accomplishments have been significant, and they are still making their presence known today.

We have much to be thankful for, and much to look forward to, as we prepare to celebrate our golden anniversary and 50 years of service to the Central Texas community in 2021.

While times and circumstances may change, our need for connection and support is as great as it has ever been. As we look back, and ahead, we know that we are truly better, together.

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