Jay Justin could not help getting emotional.
Standing before a crowd of about 70 staff and volunteers of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mississippi Valley at the River House in Moline on Thursday, Justin, who is president and CEO of the organization, informed them that they had reached a major milestone in the local chapter’s history.
In May, he said, the Quad-City chapter received a Gold Standard Award from the national organization of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America for 2016.
“What that gold standard means is that we’re viewed as one of the best organizations in the U.S.,” Justin said, his voice choking as he spoke. “We are 15 out of 310 agencies in the United States.
“It’s a tribute to the people in this room,” he said to the crowd.
To obtain a Gold Standard Award is not easy, he said, but the Mississippi Valley Chapter exceeded every mark set by the home office.
Justin took the crowd back to the early years, to 1989 when the local organization of Big Brothers Big Sisters was founded by Catholic Charities and a group of social workers who saw a need in the community.
For years the organization struggled to make payroll as well as many other issues, he said. But the donors and volunteers who believed in the organization kept it alive.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters of Chicago, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Minneapolis are turning to us and asking ‘What are you doing that’s so different that you have an average match length of three years?’”
Many of the children have obstacles in their lives, he said. “We are blessed to see every day how they overcome them because of you guys,” Justin told the crowd. “There are failures, but the wins are so significant.”
While the average match length of a big brother or big sister may be three years, several of the big brothers and big sisters have been with their match for much, much longer.
Jeff Pelvel, a school psychologist, has been a mentor to his match since the child was in second grade. That child is now a senior in high school.
“I always wanted to do this when I was younger but I didn’t have the time,” Pelvel said. “I had coached soccer and softball and I enjoy working with kids.”
Pelvel said he got involved when they were trying to find people to be part of the school lunch program.
“They were looking for a big brother for him and I said I’d do it,” Pelvel said. The story has been one of success.
Jessica Hubner, who works for Deere & Co., became a big sister three years ago to a little girl.
“She is now 11 and will be in sixth grade this year,” Hubner said. “I have watched her grow and mature for the past three years.
“She just needs someone to look up to,” Hubner said. “She as two older sisters but to have someone outside her family unit to listen and talk to really helps her out.”
Sarah Walker, senior director of enrollment and Community partnerships, said the local Big Brothers Big Sisters serves an average of 600-700 children a year from the ages of kindergarten through twelfth grade. About 60 percent of the children served are girls and 40 percent are boys.
However, there is a waiting list of about 200 children, about 70 percent of which are boys.
“We need more male volunteers,” Walker said, adding that being a volunteer does not have to be that complicated nor does it have to take long.
“It’s spending a few hours each month over a 12-month period,” she said. “It’s about having fun and being a positive adult role model. It can be hanging out at the park or going to the grocery store together or throwing the football or shooting baskets.”
What is important is building relationships, she said.
Justin said that about 12 percent of the children in Big Brothers Big Sisters have a parent who is an inmate. About 13 percent are being raised by their grandparents.
“Grandparents can give love and stability and provide food and shelter,” Justin said. But too often they can’t throw a ball or ride a bike.
Walker said that first 12 months of interaction can mean a lot to a child.
“What we see in our metrics, especially in that first 12 months is improvement social relationships with peers and adults, emotional growth and improvements in self-esteem, confidence and self-motivation. These translate into improved academics, improved relationships with adults and peers, improvements in person responsibility and discipline and going to school and doing homework; all of those things that make a successful adult.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mississippi Valley serves Rock Island, Henry, Mercer, McDonough, Warren Whiteside, Lee and Henderson counties in Illinois and Scott County in Iowa.