Newport Beach resident Sloane Keane has spent a little more than a year as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire, a nonprofit committed to matching at-risk youth with volunteer mentors. We spoke with Keane about the organization’s new programs, success stories, and challenges.
How did you first get involved with BBBS?
I actually came in through the front door as a volunteer. After graduating from Penn State, I worked in advertising and marketing. After a few years, I felt that I was successful, but I wasn’t significant. I moved back to Orange County, and I met Melissa Beck, who was the COO of the group at the time. She convinced me to volunteer as a Big Sister to a girl named Wendy. I was not married and didn’t have kids at the time, and I wanted a sense of community. I wanted to feel like I was making a difference. Soon, I was also helping the organization with marketing and becoming closer to joining the team in a professional capacity. Beck became CEO, and six years ago she asked me to lead the development team. About a year ago, she decided to go off and do other exciting things, and I became CEO.
What was your volunteer experience like?
Being a Big is challenging and rewarding. You never get out of it what you think you will. But it was by far the best experience I ever participated in. It teaches you patience and understanding. The kids change your life as much as you change theirs.
Why focus on mentorship?
Every child is born with potential. It’s opportunity that doesn’t get distributed equally. We are closing that opportunity gap to ensure that each child achieves their full potential, whatever that may be. Mentorship is the most efficient and effective way to take kids who are highly at risk due to external factors and keep them in school and out of jail. I don’t know of any better currency of success. At the heart of it, mentorship is taking a role model and putting them in the corner of someone who needs support. Most successful people will tell you they had a mentor: a parent, a teacher, a coach. Someone cheering for you and telling you that you can do it and showing you that it can be done.
Is it difficult finding enough mentors?
Most nonprofit CEOs will tell you that fundraising is their biggest challenge. For us, the challenge is volunteer recruitment. Though we do need to fundraise, our organization is set up to run efficiently at a low cost. But we are constantly trying to get more volunteers, especially men. Women are three times more likely to volunteer, so of the roughly 500 kids waiting for a mentor, more than 80 percent are little boys. I’m a mother of boys, and it breaks my heart to think of all these boys on our waitlist.
What does it take to become a mentor?
The initial commitment is three hours, twice a month, for a minimum of one year. You have to be over 18, have a valid driver’s license, and pass a thorough background check. We interview volunteers and match them at our Santa Ana office, and we also have match support specialists assigned to each pair to ensure safety and aid the volunteers with any questions they may have. (The specialists) follow up with the mentor, the child, and the parent to make sure everything is going well. As for what you do with the child—it’s up to you guys. You don’t need to spend much money; it’s about the quality of time.
How has the program evolved in recent years?
In 2017, we decided that a high school diploma would no longer be the end of the journey with us. For decades, our ultimate goal was helping children earn that diploma. But we realized that they still needed mentorship after graduating. So with our Destination Future initiative, we expanded the age to 25. Even if you graduate, get into college, have financial aid—you might now be on campus away from your family, surrounded by people who didn’t grow up the way you did. Now we have the challenges of navigating that postsecondary-education arena. On average, our youth have been matched for between five to seven years with a mentor, so we are uniquely qualified to provide that support system. Some of our kids are four-year university bound; most are looking at junior colleges or vocational training. We need to walk along with these kids, who are now adults, to help them figure out what that next step is and how to find that living-wage opportunity. It’s a big horizon and big commitment we’re making to the community.
Tell us about some of BBBS’ other programs.
In everything we do, we focus on a one-to-one mentorship. So beyond our traditional program, we have our school-based on-site program servicing Title I elementary schools and high school mentors. Once a week, BBBS staff facilitates 90-minute sessions at the elementary schools. For the teens, we focus on introducing philanthropy at an early age and providing an alternative to risky adolescent behaviors. So it helps the younger kids and the high school kids as well. We also have our workplace mentorship program linking high school students with our corporate partners such as Disney. We transport them to a corporate campus. The curriculum focuses on college and career prep. It builds upon the age of the student, so it’s ideally a three-year program.
How many children are helped each year overall?
We serve nearly 4,000 kids every single year, not including the high school mentors who I feel we are also serving. That makes us No. 2 in the nation among more than 300 BBBS offices. We are called a federation because although there is a national office, we are all locally run, and almost all fundraising is done locally.
Most successful people will tell you they had a mentor: a parent, a teacher, a coach. Someone cheering for you and telling you that you can do it and showing you that it can be done.
Are there any recent mentorship success stories you would like to share?
One that sticks out is Monica, a young lady whose mother had some major health problems, which led to an unstable financial situation that forced the family to live in their car for part of her high school experience. Through the support of her mentor, Pilar, she was able to not only graduate with honors but received early acceptance to top colleges such as Stanford and Yale. Her personal essay was stunning. It started off with how she’s in a car in a parking lot spending the night, and she hears gunshots while she’s trying to study her physics book. And what she will become is yet to be written, but her future is so bright. We have successfully closed that opportunity gap to put her on the same playing field with every other student starting at Stanford this year. But success doesn’t have to mean Stanford or even college. For some of our students, just getting a diploma goes from being a seemingly impossible task to a reality with the help of a mentor. That is the effect you can have on a child by just showing up. At our last recruitment event, one of our volunteers gave us the perfect visual of that impact.
He became a Big Brother right as his Little Brother was graduating from elementary school. His Little Brother asked him to show up to his promotion ceremony and he said, “Sure, no problem.” He walks into the auditorium and sees his Little Brother beaming and waving from the stage and pointing at his mother, who is sitting next to an open seat. There are tears coming down the mother’s face. And the Big Brother is thinking, “What’s going on here?” He has this realization that this seat has been open for so long. That this kid has been waiting for somebody to show up and sit in that seat and support him. He thought, “God, all I’m doing is showing up.” But the reaction of this kid and his mother was enough for him to realize the impact that he was making just showing up in this child’s life.