“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” — John F. Kennedy

Early in my years in Venice (since 2006) and a job at the Venice Gondolier Sun, I interviewed Joy Mahler for a story about Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast (BBBSSC).

While such a feature is most always noteworthy to our readers, the organization holds a special place in my heart since I had availed myself of the program years ago while living in northern Colorado.

As a divorced, single mom of a daughter and son, I sought support for my children from a friendly force. At the time, in that Colorado town, the program could only set each child up with Big Brothers, which were basically high school seniors who had been appropriately vetted; no Big Sister was available.

My daughter and her match met once, briefly, and then each fell through on their meetings. However, the young man who was my son’s mentor was a dream — he called on my son, Tony, regularly and they would go out to a movie once in a while and grew pretty close. We even attended the boy’s graduation — a happy yet sad time for us because that is when their relationship ended. Neither my son nor I wanted to try that again and we all just went on with our lives.

Fast forward to today’s BBBSSC. The first thing I found impressive is that most Bigs are adults and most develop long-lasting relationships with their Littles (oh, had that been the case for my son whose father was an absentee parent).

Equally impressive are the statistics that show the program’s success rates for each child, including at-risk kids, through the various programs carried out by Bigs, programs that were all designed and grown under the loving care of BBBSSC President/CEO Joy Mahler.

It is no wonder that Joy was recently chosen as a recipient of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s (FDLE) John and Reve Walsh Award.

About Joy Mahler

Joy Mahler has worked tirelessly for 35 years orchestrating programs that help thousands of children who would otherwise be left behind.

Today, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast (BBBSSC) is recognized as a leading organization in helping our youngest forgotten treasures reach their greatest potential.

Joy’s dedication to helping grow that potential was recently recognized in a big way when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) bestowed upon her the John and Reve Walsh Award.

The award is named for the work of John Walsh, who became involved in anti-crime activism after the murder of his son, Adam, in 1981.

To qualify for the award, a recipient’s work “must positively affect Florida missing children and their families and/or positively impact the safety of Florida’s children,” a BBBSSC release said. “The individual’s work over the years must indicate a profound contribution that institutionalized improvements thus preventing children from abduction and/or safely and successfully recover those who go missing.”

“It meant a lot to me to receive this award,” Joy said. “I have worked for 35 years in the mentoring model, and I think they (FDLE) recognize we are some of the ones who put forth the time and effort to keep children safe and actualize the potential our children have.”

She believes that FDLE looks at the dedication of our law enforcement and community to keep children safe, and recognizes that Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast does that.

BBBSSC’s mission is to provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever.

Nomination

Joy was nominated for the award by staff member Dan Campbell, vice president of quality assurance for BBBSSC.

He also serves on the FDLE Advisory Board advising the FDLE commissioner about such things as child abductions, safety measures, policy, and training.

Dan’s daughter, Wendy, went missing 20 years ago and was never recovered, so he has a heart for missing children.

The award came about after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (1999-2007) signed a proclamation naming the second Monday of September as Florida Missing Children’s Day. A celebration is held and awards are usually given to deserving law enforcement personnel, and many were awarded during the recent ceremony.

But this year, when it came to the Walsh award, Dan said he thought it would be appropriate for Joy to be nominated for that award because of the work she does to help keep children safe, including at-risk children.

“I made the point that it would be good for a civilian to be recognized for this award, one who really impacted their community,” Dan said. “Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast is in 10 counties and has a large footprint. It was a unanimous decision by the advisory board to give her the award, and I truly think she certainly deserved it.”

The BBBSSC’s release reflected the emphasis on impacting children’s potential. BBBSSC served 55 children the year that Joy became the President/CEO (1983). This past year, BBBSSC served a record 1,869 children in 10 Florida counties.

“Year after year, and with Joy Mahler’s leadership and direction, more than 90 percent of the at-risk children the agency serves improve or maintain satisfactory academic achievement, reap self-confidence gains, and avoid risky behaviors,” the BBBSSC release said. “Among mentored high school students, 95 percent graduated from high school and 91 percent of graduates furthered their education, entered the military, or obtained employment.”

During the event, First Lady Ann Scott joined FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen and hundreds of law enforcement personnel and public officials. The first lady said: “As a parent and grandparent, Missing Children’s Day is a solemn reminder that no family should have to endure the heartache of a missing child.”

Gov. Rick Scott emphasized the importance of making the “safety of Florida’s children a top priority in our state.”

Swearingen said: “The safety and security of Florida’s children continues to be a major priority for FDLE, as is the successful recovery of those who are missing.”

About BBBSSC

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast provides one-to-one mentoring relationships to children ages 6-18 years old throughout the Gulf Coast of Florida in Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto, Highlands, Hardee, Charlotte, Lee, Hendry, Glades and Collier counties.

To enumerate all the benefits this organization provides to children and families would make a novel. But I’ve seen the faces of some of those Bigs and Littles, and those I’ve talked with totally value their relationships.

For more information about the program, visit: BBBSSun.org.

For more information about Big Brothers Big Sisters, visit: BBBS.org/history.

Editor’s Note: Audrey Blackwell writes about the people, places and businesses along the South Trail in Venice. Your suggestions are welcome. Call 941-207-1000 or send an email.

Service and product information in this column should not be taken as an endorsement of the business.

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