Local Big Brothers Big Sisters welcomes new CEO, needs more volunteers 

click to enlarge Mitoshi Fujio-White, left, has been a Big Sister to Kaliyah for the past five years. The pair often go camping or to sporting events. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Mitoshi Fujio-White, left, has been a Big Sister to Kaliyah for the past five years. The pair often go camping or to sporting events.

Mitoshi Fujio-White and her "little" Kaliyah leaned over a box of popcorn they were sharing at a Harlem Globetrotters game at the Oracle Arena in Oakland on a recent Saturday night.

"Did you see Slick!" Kaliyah, 13, exclaimed at the sight of Globetrotter "Slick" Willie Shaw dancing around the court with a basketball.

Fujio-White laughed.

"That's my favorite player," Kaliyah added, making sure her "big" had seen Slick's latest basket.

The Globetrotters game — a merry show of basketball and whimsy — was merely one of dozens of times Fujio-White and Kaliyah have met up since being pairing together in 2009 as part of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a nationwide nonprofit organization that matches children with adult mentors.

The Bay Area branch is headquartered in San Francisco, and with a new chief executive officer named last month and a handful of new programs under way to help usher in new children, the nonprofit is seeing an unprecedented growth of potential volunteers.

For the first year of the program, mentors and their littles are required to meet up three or four times a month. Most relationships continue after that, with the average lasting around three years.

Fujio-White and Kaliyah have been together for five years, and their bond is evident.

"I don't really feel like I'm part of a program. I just feel like I'm having fun," explained Kaliyah, who lives in Oakland. "I see [Fujio-White] as an adult, but I don't see her as, like, a bossy grown-up. I see her as one of my friends. I can open up and just relax. I can be myself."

The pair met for the first time at the organization's Oakland offices, with Kaliyah's mother and a match specialist.

"I wasn't quite sure ... at the first meeting," Kaliyah said of how she felt when she met Fujio-White. "A few weeks after that, we went to the library. The first five minutes, I was quiet, and then she played Michael Jackson and I started dancing."

Fujio-White remembers that drive to the library as well.

"She was very quiet. I was like, 'Wow, is she going to be supershy?' But as soon as she opened up ..." Fujio-White cut herself off and glanced at Kaliyah, and the two burst out laughing.

Clearly, any shyness from their first visit is long gone. The two have since done everything together, from camping to trying new foods to attending sporting events. In fact, it was their mutual love of sports and not being "supergirly" that helped them get along so well, Fujio-White said.

Though Fujio-White had a baby last year, she still sees Kaliyah at least once a month.

"Even when we [aren't] meeting, we text and send pictures to each other, and we'll talk on the phone," Fujio-White said.

NEW CEO, NEW PROGRAMS

Big Brothers Big Sisters came to the Bay Area in 1958 with a regional office on the Peninsula. It expanded to the East Bay and Santa Clara County in the 1970s.

"Last year, we grew the number of children served by 2 percent. We saw just under 1,000 children in our program who were matched with a volunteer throughout the Bay Area," said Dawn Kruger, who was named CEO of the regional operation last month after serving in the position on an interim basis.

"The other side of that is we have a lot more work to do," Kruger added. "We have 800 children who are waiting to be matched with a caring adult mentor, primarily boys."

But Kruger, who started as a volunteer in 2001, is ready to get to work.

"Every day, we have new children who are coming to our doors and are wanting to be matched with a mentor," she said. "A lot of the kids see things that kids maybe shouldn't see. Our mentors offer those kids opportunities outside of that."

Kruger intends to focus on fundraising, which will help to hire more staffers who can match volunteers with children. With a waiting list of 800 children and a staff of 18, Kruger intends to boost fundraising efforts to hire more match specialists.

"There's more people who are wanting to volunteer now more than ever before, which is terrific," Kruger said. "Given the number of staff that we have, we have to grow the funds ... in order to grow the staff to make the matches. That's a big challenge for us right now."

The nonprofit had several successful endeavors last year, including an aggressive advertising campaign, the organization's first walk-a-thon, and a pilot program Mentoring for Success in which Gap employees were matched with San Francisco 10th-graders to share workplace skills.

ONGOING BONDS

Last year, Big Brothers Big Sisters piloted a 12-month workplace mentoring program with San Francisco-based clothing retailer Gap. The program matched seven Gap employees with seven 10th-graders to help them learn office and financial skills.

Throughout the year, the group met every other Thursday afternoon, participating in general team-building exercises and spending one-on-one time together. Lessons include résumé-building, managing finances, how taxes work, interviewing tips and other career-related skills.

The students in the program are considered at-risk and many are without an adult role model, said San Francisco resident David Watson, a customer care manager at GapTech who participated in the pilot.

Watson was paired with then-15-year-old Javon. Over the course of the year, Watson, 40, watched as his little began to take things more seriously, and mature.

"Javon is kind of a jokester," Watson said with a laugh. "He's learning when it's appropriate to joke around, when it is more appropriate to hold back."

Perhaps the most meaningful change Watson saw in Javon was in October, when the teen acquired his first job, at a community health center.

"I talked to him right before the interview. I told him, 'Don't forget the firm handshake when you get there, and a firm handshake when you leave,'" Watson said, adding that he explained a firm handshake is a sign of respect.

When Javon shared the good news of his new job with Watson, Javon noted that his interviewer had commended him on the handshake. Watson felt proud.

"Sharing my experiences and the things I'd been through hopefully will help him be better prepared [and] able to handle the things that come into his life and able to work through them," Watson said. The two still keep in touch.

LIFE LESSONS

The partnership between Gap and Big Brothers Big Sisters is expected to continue this year, expanding from 12 to 18 months, Watson said.

At least one other pair from the workplace mentoring program has kept in touch, and Watson said others he has spoken with are surprised by how much they gained from participating.

"In a lot of ways, I think the bigs learned a lot more about this next generation," Watson said.

And the littles gained plenty as well, he noted. One memorable Thursday included a visit to Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin, where the students and their mentors served dinner to the mostly homeless guests.

"As tough as things have been for them, they got to see people who were in far worse shape," Watson said of the students.

In addition to continuing the mentoring program, Big Brothers Big Sisters plans to hold its second annual walk-a-thon May 31.

"What we need most of all is to continue to make matches and be successful," Kruger said.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Bio:
Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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