2/25/2014 10:30:00 AM Needed: More 'Bigs' for many 'Littles'
Andy Nelson admires model car with Margarito.
Organization includes Catholic roots
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America aims to help young people reach their potential by providing the positive presence of a caring adult.
It started in 1904, when a young New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter was seeing more and more boys come through his courtroom. He recognized that caring adults could help many youths stay out of trouble, and he set out to find volunteers. That marked the beginning of the Big Brothers movement.
At around the same time, the members of a group called Ladies of Charity were befriending girls who had come through the New York Children’s Court. That group would later become Catholic Big Sisters.
The organizations served independently until 1977, when they merged.
For years, Portland was the only major metropolitan area in the U.S. without thriving Big Brothers or Big Sisters programs. Then, for a span of eight years, the merged organization provided mentoring programs through the Urban League of Portland. In 1999, facing a loss of county funding, the Urban League closed many of its youth services programs, including Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Volunteers worked to form an independent and sustainable organization. By 2001, the group incorporated as a nonprofit and went on to raise enough funds to become a fully affiliated Big Brothers Big Sisters agency.
The Portland and Vancouver, Wash.-based agencies merged in 2006. Headquartered in Northeast Portland, the organization has grown to become the ninth largest Big Brothers Big Sisters agency in the country.
Andy Nelson, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest, oversees 1,500 youths matched with 1,500 adults. The problem is, he has 1,500 more kids but is fresh out of mentors, or "Bigs," as he calls them.
"It's hard to attract Bigs," says Nelson, a member of The Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland. "Men especially. There is so much fatherlessness out there. Boys need role models."
Nelson, 48, asks nothing he does not do himself. He is Big Brother to Margarito, an 11-year-old who lives in Portland's Parkrose district.
Nelson has been CEO of the venerable mentoring program, which has Catholic roots, since early 2012. He grew up in Springfield, Mass., where he attended Cathedral High School before going on to get an English degree at Westfield State College.
Nelson became a newspaper reporter in Connecticut, but after five years seemed to be off kilter. A definitive moment came when he was assigned to cover the opening of a homeless shelter.
"I felt I was observing life but not serving," he says. "I felt drawn to get something done. I felt drawn to good works."
Nelson counts among his heroes a priest friend of the family, a man who missed Andy's baptism because he was involved in a civil rights march in the nation's capital. But Father Robert Canny stayed involved in the young man's life.
"He was a mentor who had a lot of faith in me," Nelson says. "I did not know anybody else who had made a whole life out of living his values. I didn't know you could do that. I thought maybe I could give that a shot."
Nelson entered a social work degree program at the University of Connecticut. He also got married to a fellow journalist. Together, they moved west to Portland in 1995, in large part out of a sense of adventure.
Nelson landed work raising funds for good causes. He helped the Edgefield Children's Center in Troutdale with a capital campaign and then got the resources flowing at Portland non-profits like Friendly House, IMPACT Northwest and Hands on Greater Portland, which provides volunteer opportunities in the region. That last organization, which he helped start, etched a question into his soul — How do we help people do good?
That led right into the top job at Big Brothers Big Sisters.
The focus of the organization is helping the "Littles" graduate from high school on time. Judged by that measure, the mentorships are a wild success. Overall in Portland, about a third of high school students won't finish on schedule. Among kids who are of color and poor, it's about half. By contrast, 90 percent of kids with a Big Brother or Big Sister have been graduating when expected.
"When kids have relationships, it helps," Nelson says.
Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest is on solid financial footing, having weathered the economic slump. Donors kept being generous even in hard times, Nelson explains gratefully.
Nelson became a Big Brother shortly after being named CEO. A father, he worried about conflicts of time with his son. But once he started, he found he had more to give both boys, not less.
"There is more to us than you would think," he says. "It is a powerful opportunity." Nelson spends 12 to 15 hours per month with Margarito, a sixth grader at Parkrose Middle School who comes from a family of Mexican immigrants who have faced hard times.
"I have had this real opportunity to be a part of a family I otherwise would not have met," Nelson says. "I have been able to connect. It gives me a cultural experience I would not have ever had."
Nelson works more than 50 hours per week, but still has time for family, friends and his Little Brother. He unwinds with cooking, golf and yard work.
He has never pulled in a huge salary, but does not fret.
"I felt if I did what I loved and what I was passionate about, at the end of the day I wouldn't regret it," he says. "I have been able to live my values and a lot of those values came out of my Catholic upbringing."
Nelson coaches CYO basketball at The Madeleine.
"He promotes the young men to make decisions for themselves and to remember that the decisions and behaviors displayed will shape who they become," says Barry Adams, athletic director at The Madeleine.
Nelson asks people of faith to pray about being a Big Brother or Big Sister.
"Think about what we are capable of and take a chance on it," he says. "Anything worth anything in this life is a risk."
Posted: Friday, March 21, 2014
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Congratulations, Andy, for trying to live your values. I'm sure the children who are connected through the program are as fortunate as the adults who help them. We grow together as we share and care in a very uncertain world of change.