While for most involved, Big Brothers Big Sisters is about having fun, the program was founded with the purpose of providing positive role models in the lives of at-risk youth, and it has proven to be effective.
“We’re an essential program, not just a nice program. We’re making a difference in people’s lives,” BBBS Alaska CEO Taber Rehbaum had to say of the program.
BBBS was founded originally at the turn of the 20th century by a court clerk who saw a lot of fatherless boys funneling through the court system. The clerk, Ernest Coulter, approached his church men’s club with an idea.
“At least how I visualize it is he stood on a chair and said to these men, ‘If we can just be like brothers to these young men,’ and everyone volunteered,” Rehbaum said.
Rehbaum said a similar program was started in Cincinnati, Ohio around that time and eventually BBBS was chartered by congress.
The program came to Alaska in 1972 with Rick Mystrom, and was chartered in 1973 — 40 years ago.
Mystrom had just moved to Anchorage and was looking for a BBBS program; he had been a Big Brother elsewhere. Not finding one, Mystrom, with colleagues and friends, did the legwork necessary to get one started in Anchorage. Juneau and eventually Fairbanks followed suit.
Rehbaum has been with BBBS Alaska for 18 years, starting as the director in Fairbanks.
In a previous life, Rehbaum said, she was a banker in upstate New York. She said she found most of her job satisfaction “from the things that were more service oriented and involved with individuals instead of the corporate world.”
She decided to transfer some of her management skills into the non-profit world and, while on a visit to Fairbanks, saw an ad in the Daily Newsminer seeking a new director of their branch of BBBS.
“I picked up the Sunday Daily Newsminer and my job was in it,” Rehbaum said. “I submitted my application and met with the outgoing director.”
But Rehbaum couldn’t stay an extra day for an in-person interview because she had a BBBS commitment in Schenectady — Bowl for Kids’ Sake.
Rehbaum was offered the spot and drove cross-country to Fairbanks from Upstate New York and has been with BBBS ever since.
For many years, BBBS in Alaska was three separate organizations, all of which had expanded to support the program on a regional level. The directors of the groups would meet annually, but at the national conference wherever in the U.S. that might be.
Though the organizations didn’t merge fully until 2007, the transition began a number of years before with working together to submit one grant request for the state and divvying up whatever funds they might get based on an agreed upon formula.
“We really felt it would help develop more capacity to serve more kids, to attract more funding,” Rehbaum said.
Not only is it easier within the organization with one financial department and more cohesive leadership, it is also easier for volunteers with the program, Rehbaum said, “If someone is a big in Juneau, if you were to move to Fairbanks, it would be a seamless transition.”
Rehbaum cited Juneau’s Bill Peters as a strong voice in merging into one BBBS Alaska, “He had a vision that we could work better together.”
Peters has served on the Juneau board and on the statewide board. She also said the founder, Mystrom, is still active in Anchorage.
Rehbaum is a Big Sister herself, through the school-based program.
“My little sister is in the seventh grade, she’s just a joy,” Rehbaum said, she was scheduled to see her Little Sister sing in her middle school talent show Friday afternoon. “I’m impressed with her courage.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters may be a fun program, but that shouldn’t overshadow how effective it is.
“Those of us involved know how fun it is, how rewarding it is, but one thing we don’t emphasize enough is just what a difference it makes,” Rehbaum said.
Philanthropedia, the subgroup of GuideStar that rates nonprofit organizations, rated BBBS No. 1 “in terms of having an impact, being effective with at-risk kids.”
“Eighty subject matter experts... were impressed with Big Brothers Big Sisters,” Rehbaum said.
Locally, former Juneau director Marc Wheeler has been working on research, recently speaking on a radio program about research done in the Pacific Northwest showing the impact BBBS has on youth depression. Rehbaum said there’s research that shows positive results for mental health, education and juvenile justice issues like prevention of violence and drug use.
BBBS Alaska serves between 1,000 and 1,500 youth throughout Alaska each year, this year it is closer to the 1,500 number.
The Alaska program boasts some promising statistics for kids involved: Littles are 52 percent less likely to skip class, 27 percent less likely to use alcohol and 46 percent less likely to begin using drugs, according to the organization’s web site, BBBSAK.org — to help be a part of making BBBS great over the next 40 years, visit the web site or call locally at 586-3350. One can choose to be a Big Brother or Sister in either the school-based or community program, or one can simply donate to keep this program going.
“One of the things I find so exciting is something so simple as friendship can have impacts on a child’s life. Just you and me having fun every week, being a positive role model, being a supportive and listening adult — we may not even see what the impact of our relationships are,” Rehbaum said, adding, “It’s not rocket science, it’s human contact.”