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A Conversation with Terry Hickey, President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake on Unrealistic Expectations

Click here for Part 1 & Part 2 Transforming the lives of children facing adversity Terry HickeyTerry Hickey is the President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake. A local affiliate of the youth mentoring 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, BBBSGC nurtures children in adverse circumstances by providing them with dedicated adult mentors in a one-to-one basis. Founded in 1904, BBBS enjoys an international reputation as a leading charitable organization today. When surveyed, 83% of former “Little” siblings agree that their relationships in the program instilled them with enduring, positive values. Adults interested in becoming mentors can sign up at biglittle.org. Terry Hickey spoke with Baltimore Sun reporter Sloane Brown for this interview. SLOANE BROWN: I would imagine that one of the issues you guys deal with is, when it comes to unrealistic expectations, there’s probably more on the side of the adults—the Bigs—than there are with the kids. TERRY HICKEY: Right. An adult is often expected to come in and be seen automatically as wonderful—the fairy godmother, fairy godfather, whatever—and then when the child doesn’t immediately respond… Because I would imagine a lot of these kids have trust issues. Right. I mean, you guys have to play shrink a bit with a lot of your volunteers. Right, I can sum up the child’s expectations pretty quickly: show up, tell me the truth, and care about me. You’d be amazed. They don’t think [the Bigs] are going to come back, they don’t think they’re going to be honest with them, and they don’t think they care. What’s so amazing about this though is that it’s really hard to look at an adult that’s come and seen you once a week for the first couple of months and just spend time with you—it’s almost impossible for a child to say you’re just here because you’re volunteering with a company or you’re made do it. Now the adults—different story. The expectations are all over the place. You kind of come at it from two sides: You’ve got those that come in very, very confident that “I have everything, I’m going to impart all my wisdom on this child, he’ll be a ‘mini-me’ and we’re going to go from there.” And “What do you mean you don’t like that?” Or “What do you mean you don’t want to go out for sushi?” We have to deal with that. The other side is the person who’s completely paranoid—“They’re going to hate me, they’re going to think my job’s boring, I don’t want to say anything to offend them.” And then running beneath all of this is this really serious undertone— and you had mentioned it about trust issues—we have so much information these days from scientific studies about trauma. You know, I have a four-and-a-half-year-old, and when he gets a booboo, that two minutes of trauma on my child’s face ruins me. Imagine if a child grows up for the first 12 years of their life with their fight-or-flight syndrome turned on all the time. All the time. There’s a gunshot in the alley, there’s a dog barking right in front, and you don’t know if it’s safe or not. You’re outside, you can’t find your mom. There’s a million things. You’re surrounded oftentimes by frustrated energy. So, you’re in fight-or-flight mode all the time. Imagine that booboo moment spread over 12 years—who would you trust? Right, exactly. There are so many good programs in Baltimore city and around the state that are site-based, where you go and you do things and you learn things. Big Brothers Big Sisters doesn’t want to interfere with any of that. As a matter of fact, we’d love to get more adults connected to other programs by being a mentor, but at the end of the day, the reason I say mentoring is going to change our city, change our state, change the way we think about young people, is you’ve got one non-profit organization embodied in you, focused on one child. Be it getting them to try that after-school program, being there for their first day of Little League when they’re terrified to put themselves out there. Or—better yet—they’re at home and they get a phone call from a kid they haven’t seen in a long time who says, “You gotta do me a favor. I just want you to hold this and wait for me in that alley. You owe me. We’re boys, we grew up together.” Who do they call? Who do they call. Right. You know, most of our kids will tell us they do not have—particularly boys—a male role model that they can call in that kind of life-changing experience, that they trust. That leads me into talking about some major changes that you guys experienced this spring. Right. I’ve been kind of thinking of words for this—you know, profound, unprecedented. At this point I think everybody knows April was a pretty rough patch for us in Baltimore. I don’t believe for a second that it changed the paradigm of anything. I think it just made people aware— It illuminated… Illuminated. That’s a great word. It illuminated, shocked, spurred into action. We’re such a wonderful planet of people that react to things, but something that’s so interesting about this: we did not want to put out the call after the unrest about mentors, we didn’t want to look like we were trying to kind of capitalize the situation. Exactly. But our staff wanted to be out there. We have a lot of young staff, they put on their Big Brother shirts and they went out to a lot of the sites and were helping clean. They brought cards, and if people approached them—people approached them in droves—they were coming up saying… And do you know it was? You started the interview by talking about people know about us? It’s in their heads, but it’s that affirmative action—it’s a movement. They came up and said, “I’ve been thinking about this and I’m just going to do it.” We got all these calls: “That application’s been sitting on my desk, can you get me an interview now?” Like, “Can I come in now?” It was sense of urgency, and it was a sense of volume. We said, “Okay, well, we’re going to put this out there.” So we started putting out the numbers. We had hundreds of kids on our waitlist which numbers about a thousand—you know, over 600 or 700 just in Baltimore city—so the kids that were in that school that didn’t run out, the young people that were in the rowhouses that didn’t come out—a lot of them were on our waitlist. The parents had been waiting months. We have this challenge about being able to find people willing to commit quickly enough. I remember you telling me, when I saw you not long after, that the number of phone calls and inquiries you had—so tell me that number in comparison to your history. The month of the riots, to the end of June, which is the end of our year, we had almost 1,500 inquires—which is an entire year’s worth, more, rolled into really about two months—of people coming to us, on their own; companies calling us. We were thinking people are going to come back and say, “I think we got to pull back for a bit. Our employees maybe don’t know exactly what they want to do.” But the response was “We don’t want to do a one-day project. What can we get involved in that we can see change, that we can get invested in? We want to go to the neighborhoods, we want to work with older kids.” Nobody comes to us for that, generally. You know, “can I mentor a teenager that lives in West Baltimore?” There’s a danger to say, cynically, it’s an eruption of emotion so everybody’s reaching out. We are not the short play. I’m not so emotionally charged I’m going to come in and go through a month-long process so I can spend the next couple of years of my life developing a trusting bond with one young person and their family and, ultimately, their community. Right. So, 1,400, 1,500 inquires. In the last month of the year, we made 70 matches. I told you about the process—it’s fairly involved, it’s a challenge—but we can’t do it quickly. We’re not going to sacrifice safety. And has there been good follow-up? Again, you would imagine a lot of people impulsively calling and then they don’t really follow up. How’s that been? Our conversion rate generally, from meeting you at Artscape and having you sign up you know on a clipboard to getting you matched, is about 17%. Believe it or not, it’s close to the national average, because it’s commitment and it just takes a lot to get over that perception. Now what about since this spring? A. We’re seeing over 30%, but that’s the thing: it’s the volume, but it’s the urgency. Even before the riots, there had been a call for men because—people may remember—there had been an uptick in violence. There was a lot going on in the Canton–Highlandtown area, we’d been seeing some real growing rifts between teenagers and community members. We had gone out and gotten some grant funding, and people said, “Why do you want to focus on Highlandtown? Why not go to some of these neighborhoods we’re hearing about?” Because that’s where everybody lives. You’ve got desperately poor children, deserving families, and then we’ve got all of these folks that are being hired to work in companies—some of our partners like Under Armour and others—that’s where people are living. So, you could go to the other side of Patterson Park where you play football on weekends, and be hanging out. You go north of the park and you could mentor a child. We were seeing an uptick, and then the dam burst. And what’s been so, I would say, profound is they’re talking about this around the country. We’ve had a real challenge. Mentoring tends to be an enhancement: it’s “let’s add a mentoring component,” or “let’s throw in mentoring.” Now, it’s being treated with a sense of it’s an essential tool to build community. We’re bringing people together, and we’re doing it one match at a time.  

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