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Big Brothers Big Sisters aims for growth

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Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When she was 12, Robin Swearingen Goodson needed a friend.

Her father was struggling with alcoholism. Her mother, trying to hold her family together, was “short-fused.” And Robin had no one to turn to or confide in.

But after babysitting for a two-year-old across the street, she found a mentor in the child’s 28-year-old mother.

“She was a light in my life,” says Goodson, now 43. “She told me it was not my fault, I could get through this, I was strong, I could choose another path.”

To help pay back what her mentor gave to her, Goodson says, she has volunteered for 16 years at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Charlotte and now chairs its board.

Sarah Cherne, the group’s new CEO, says a top priority will be to enlist more volunteers and donors as the organization works to meet rising need for services.

Last year, the organization served over 2,000 children and operated with an annual budget of $1.8 million, up from 300 children and $100,000 seven years ago when it became an independent nonprofit after operating for 30 years as a program of United Family Services.

Despite reducing the staff to 23 employees from 29 in the face of the slumping economy, Cherne has worked with the board to set ambitious new goals.

She has hired a chief development officer and aims to diversify the organization’s base of donors and generate bigger gifts from individuals, particularly alumni who had mentors when they were children.

And she aims within five years to serve 6,000 children a year, a goal she says would require increasing the organization’s annual budget to $10 million and its staff to 150 employees.

That still would represent only 10 percent of the estimated 60,000 children in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools who live at or below the poverty level.

One of 450 affiliates of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the Charlotte group provides and supports one-on-one mentoring.

It screens and matches children and mentors, who work with children in schools or in community settings.

And Big Brothers Big Sisters, in a partnership it is developing with UNC-Charlotte, plans to provide children’s families with free counseling in their homes.

Mentors, for example, work once a week with children in 20 elementary schools.

Big Brothers Big Sisters also offers a faith-based mentoring program, known as Amachi, that pairs mentors and children with at least one immediate family member who is incarcerated.

And it is launching Power for Girls, an empowerment program that Cherne created at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay in Florida, when she served as that affiliate’s
director of program research, design and evaluation.

With 99 percent of the children it works with living in homes headed by a single parent, most of them women, Cherne says, a big challenge for Big Brothers Big Sisters is finding African-American men to serve as mentors.

And mentoring makes a difference, she says.

In 2007, she says, 77 percent of children in its programs improved their academic performance, 96 percent avoided delinquent behavior, 99 percent avoided substance abuse, and 88 percent indicate more self-confidence.

“We’re really changing how children are growing up,” says Cherne, who most recently was executive director of the Great Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross in New Hampshire.

And Goodson, who owns Designs by Robin, says mentoring has a lasting impact, both on children and on mentors.

“One of the most important things we can do as human beings,” she says, “is to say, ‘I made a difference in the life of a child.'”

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