BBBS staff

PROVIDED PHOTO

The staff of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast, recently honored by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America as Large Agency of the Year. President and CEO Joy Mahler is at the far right in the middle row.

As Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast has gotten bigger, it has earned bigger honors.

Last year it was Board of the Year from the national organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. This year it’s Large Agency of the Year.

The honor is based on outstanding leadership; increasing the number of children it serves; strategic decisions leading to innovation and growth; and the quality and length of mentoring matches, according to a press statement.

“It’s an affirmation of our business practices, but even more important, that we strive to help all children reach their potential,” President and CEO Joy Mahler said.

Mahler has been with the nonprofit for 36 of the 51 years it has been matching “Littles” with “Bigs” to serve as friend and mentor.

When she joined, it was meeting the needs only of kids in Venice, North Port and Englewood. Now it’s the Big Brothers agency for a 10-county area, from Manatee County down to Collier County and east to Hardee and Highlands.

“We’ve merged, realigned and expanded,” Mahler said.

Bigger means serving more kids — more than 1,800 last year and probably close to 2,000 this year, she said.

“The need is there,” she said.

But the agency had to evolve as it grew, too.

Only volunteers who were year-round residents were accepted previously; now, seasonal help is fine. That’s a reason the agency is a leader in elder volunteers.

“We are connecting generations,” Mahler said. “Our volunteers teach our children and our children teach our volunteers.”

The core of the Big/Little relationship remains one-to-one mentoring, Mahler said, but now there’s a school-based program in addition to the community-based one. And she has the flexibility to create initiatives as long as she abides by the national organization’s standards of practice.

One of the initiatives, Beyond School Walls, connects high school students with mentors in business settings so they can learn skills such as participating in a job interview. In addition, they get exposed to potential careers. Venice Regional Bayfront Health is one of the partners in the program.

Another, Next Steps to 21, provides guidance through age 21 to help participants transition into work or college. Services used to end at age 18, Mahler said, but many Big/Little teams stayed in touch anyway and the need for support doesn’t end just because the Little turned 18.

She also credited her “amazing, passionate staff and volunteers” and “wonderful parents” who sign their kids up as keys to the agency’s success.

“We have people that are 100% invested in taking this organization to the next level,” she said.

“Every one of our kids has tremendous potential. All we have to do is connect them. Once they realize their potential, they’ll achieve it.

“We know we’ve done a good job when parents say, ‘Wow, we couldn’t have done this without a Big in our lives.”

Learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast at BBBSun.org.

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