People around town are excited because it was recently announced that Donald Driver, the Green Bay Packers' all-time leading wide receiver, a Super Bowl champion, and "Dancing with the Stars" winner, will be the special guest at the Big Brothers Big Sisters 2013 Annual Gala July 13 at the Madison Marriott West.
“We're very pleased to have Donald Driver coming this year. He's a big supporter of Big Brothers Big Sisters,” says Dora Zúñiga, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County. “He's done lots of work for Big Brothers Big Sisters in Green Bay. We chose him for a variety of reasons including the fact that he's had the kind of life that our kids have had. He's a great inspiration to us all.”
Before rising to fame with the Green Bay Packers, Driver had a tough childhood living in poverty in Houston, Texas. He lived out of a U-Haul truck during his early teens after a collection agency confiscated his family's possessions. Driver spent multiple nights in motel rooms that his mother, Faye Gray, purchased with food stamps. Today, Driver is one of the most well-respected professional athletes in all of sports.
“We are so excited to have him here this year,” Zúñiga tells The Madison Times in an interview at the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) offices on Madison's near east side. “He was willing to come to Madison to be our featured speaker because he wanted to help us get to the next level. Big Brothers Big Sisters is a donor and volunteer supported organization. We're not a typical non-profit — we raise about 80 percent of our funding through special events. So this event will be big for us.”
It will be a fun-filled evening filled with music, hors d'oeuvres, a raffle, an elegant dinner, friends and kids' award announcements, a Q & A with Donald Driver, a live auction, and dancing. Guests have been told to dress to impress.
“In case any of the ladies want to go dancing, we will have a live auction to be able to dance with Donald Driver,”Zúñiga says.
The BBBS Annual Gala is a glamorous event where the Dane County community comes together to support children who need or want a mentor. The gala provides the perfect opportunity to get dressed up, have some fun, and truly inspire children to achieve their dream.
The numbers have shown that BBBS has had a tremendous impact on Dane County, but, Zúñiga says, there is always a tremendous need to have more mentors or “Bigs.”
“Unfortunately, there is a huge waiting list for some children. There are over 700 kids who are waiting to be matched right here in Dane County,” Zúñiga says “Fifty percent of the kids in the Madison School District are on free and reduced lunch. Twenty-nine percent of the kids in Sun Prairie are on free and reduced lunch. That's a significant amount of kids who are eligible for this program. This list of 700 are usually moms, sometimes dads, sometimes single grandparents, sometimes foster parents who have raised their hands and have said, 'You know, I want my kid to have a better life.' And without more Bigs, we are not able to respond to the call for help.”
The process to become a Big is not all that difficult and many people do find that being a Big Brother or Big Sister is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things that they will ever do having the opportunity to help shape a child’s future for the better by empowering them to achieve their full potential. And have fun while you are doing it.
“We are really looking for folks in the community who have roots and won't be leaving in the near future,” Zúñiga says. “There's an interview process and a written application. We do reference checks. We do background checks. We're going to be trusting you with somebody's child. Once we do that interview process we find out all about you and we try to find a child who has similar interests as you.”
BBBS also has a “Family Match” program that enables families to include a child in activities, discussions, and outings. This program is a perfect excuse to get the whole family together while benefiting a child. It is also a great way to introduce your children to volunteerism.
“It's a great way to introduce diversity into your life,” Zúñiga says. “Let's say you want your kids to get more comfortable around Hispanics — we have Hispanic kids across Dane County who are waiting for a match. It also helps the burden of meeting the commitment. When Family Matches get together, sometimes its the husband, sometimes it will be the mom, sometimes it will be the whole family, sometimes it will be the mom and the kids. There are a lot of ways to match up and it helps to ease the burden of 'do we have enough time?'”
The experience of the Family Match is also a great way to talk about empathy with your kids and get them on the path for service and volunteerism. “Our kids hear the word poverty every day but many often don't experience it up close,” Zúñiga says “They really understand it when they are matched with a child that ends up being their Little Brother ... and they move once a year; and you don't move once a year. The payback to the family who volunteers is that their kids just grow by leaps and bounds in understanding the reality and the privilege that they have that others might not have.”
Zúñiga says that people will be surprised at how old the Bigs are in the BBBS program.
“People think about our Bigs being fresh-out-of-college-type people — because that's what it used to be,” she says. “The average age of Bigs, however, at today's Big Brothers Big Sisters is 34. They have a little more stability, a little more knowledge, a little more roots in the community and whatnot.”
Zúñiga says that another thing that most people don't realize about Big Brothers Big Sisters is that 87 percent of the children that they serve are children of color.
“Forty-two percent of the kids that we serve are African American, 18 percent are Hispanic, 25 percent are multiracial,”Zúñiga says.
These are young people that are often some of the neediest kids in Dane County coming from low-income and single-parent households and dealing with all types of serious issues from homelessness to depression to parental incarceration. “That’s why the kids that we are serving today really need somebody to be with them for the long haul,” Zúñiga says. “At Big Brothers Big Sisters we ask you to make a two-year commitment, because we don't just need you for a day or two. One of the ways that we measure our success is by looking at average match length. Our numbers are significantly higher than the Midwest and national average [BBBS] match lengths. We truly are one of the solutions to the academic achievement gap because kids are graduating from high school who have been mentored through Big Brothers Big Sisters for a good 6,7,8,10 years.”
On June 19, Big Brothers Big Sisters held a graduating reception at the Boardman Law Firm in downtown Madison where 22 BBBS kids were honored for graduating. “That truly is our goal,” Zúñiga says. “It's not about exposing kids to fun things in the community; it's about helping them achieve academically so they can reach their full potential. There was a study done where kids who were mentored by Big Brothers Big Sisters had a much higher likelihood to graduate and go on to college, have successful families, and have good relationships in their lives.”
Zúñiga is excited about the Annexstad Family Foundation Scholarship, a four-year, renewable scholarship that provides support for deserving young men and women who have matured as "Littles" through a participating Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“Kids can get into UW-Madison, UW-Eau Claire, or UW-Whitewater and apply for the Annexstad Scholarship,” Zúñiga says. “This [Annexstad] family will help the kid graduate from college without any debt. We've had one kid get the scholarship last year. We have two that we know are getting it this year and we're hoping to have four next year.”
Positive stories like these are what makes Zúñiga, who has been the executive director of BBBS of Dane County for nine years now, find her job to be extremely rewarding.
“We believe that mentoring is one of the solutions to the academic achievement gap,” she says. “It's not an instant solution; it's a long-term solution. So, part of having been here for nine years is having kids who started in the program about the same time that I started. And I'm seeing them being successful and I'm seeing them break that cycle of poverty. That is so rewarding to see.”
Zúñiga remembers one young fifth-grade girl in particular who entered Big Brothers Big Sisters right after she lost a parent. “Imagine being in fifth grade and being homeless and now today she's graduating and she's going off to college,” Zúñiga says. “She's been accepted and she has college credit. This kid wouldn't have gone off to college had it not been for the joint partnerships between her, her parent, her Big Sister, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. It just wouldn't have happened.
“Those stories are the most rewarding part about working at Big Brothers Big Sisters. And then they hug me when they see me, too!” Zúñiga adds with a smile. “I love kids. And we're not just helping the kids, we're helping make a better community — one kid at a time.”
Donald Driver — Green Bay Packers' all-time leading wide receiver, Super Bowl Champion and "Dancing with the Stars" winner — will be the special guest at the Big Brothers Big Sisters 2013 Annual Gala Friday, July 13, at the Madison Marriott West.
For more information about the event, contact Leda Rawlins at (608)661-5437 or firstname.lastname@example.org