CEO, Big Sister Association
Growing up in Boston with loving parents and five older brothers, Deborah Re (pictured at left, far right) knew she was fortunate. Yet, even as a child, she longed for the companionship of an older woman who was not an authority figure like a parent or a teacher. "I would have benefited from the support and guidance of a mentor," she says. "Someone who would simply allow me to be who I am."
In other words, a Big Sister.
That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind the organization she now leads, the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston.
Dedicated to Making a Big Difference in Young Girls' Lives
Founded in 1951 with a mission of helping girls realize their full potential through positive mentoring relationships with women, the organization today serves more than 2,700 young women in 69 cities and towns within the greater Boston area. Deborah has served as Chief Executive Officer for four years and counting, leading a staff of 30 full-time employees—many of whom are social workers with a background in women's and girls' issues—as well as part-time workers, interns, and high school students.
Deborah's path to the helm of the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston is not a straightforward one. In fact, as she puts it, she came "full circle," having started her career as a fourth-grade teacher. "It was my most joyful year," she recalls. "What I loved was the children's transformation and their excitement about learning. They were nine-year-olds, and they were excited every day."
Although she left teaching to work in financial services for 16 years, Deborah is glad to have returned to an organization that offers that same sense of passion about transforming young lives. "It's a strength-based program," she says. "Helping young girls reach their potential and nurturing their strengths is the same as teaching to me."
Big Sister, Big Commitment … And Big Rewards
The Big Sister program works very much the way its title suggests. An adult woman willing to make a commitment of at least one year to the program (most continue on past their one-year term, Deborah reveals) is carefully matched with a Little Sister in need of extra guidance and support.
Deborah admits that the organization has been under pressure for remaining gender-specific, and she is proud that it has stayed true to its mission. "It's about the girls, not the organization," as she puts it. "Boys and girls have different needs. Being more focused is better. We have the experience and knowledge of girls' needs. At the end of the day, it's all about mentoring through the lens of gender."
Requests for Big Sisters are often made by the girl's mother, though foster parents, teachers, and counselors—and, many times, the girls themselves contact Big Sister Association. "We do lots of upfront work," Deborah says. "Our social work staff does a thorough assessment of the potential Big and Little Sister, looking for commonalities and connections that will make the best possible match. The Big Sister then undergoes significant training before she goes to the house and meets the girl and her family. It's a beautiful thing, the match meeting."
Some of the organization's biggest proponents are women who once were Little Sisters themselves. For example, when South Boston native Colleen White was nine years old, she began acting out, and her mother felt the girl needed more attention than she could give her. Big Sister Association found someone they thought would be a good match—and after just a few visits Colleen knew that her Big Sister was the right one for her. The two went on walks together and made cupcakes, and Colleen began to confide in her Big Sister and ask her questions she couldn't ask anyone else. Through the confidence-building friendship she shared with her Big Sister, Colleen saw an alternative to the choices many of her friends were making, such as getting pregnant and dropping out of high school.
"What a Big Sister is able to give is attention from a caring adult not related to her or a teacher, but who can look at her strengths and just give guidance and support," Deborah says. Colleen went on to graduate from high school and get married—thanks to the guidance of her Big Sister. And she has shared her experience many times over to inspire others.
It's the kind of story that makes every day rewarding for Deborah. "I hear stories like this all the time," she says. "It makes me even more passionate about my work—though it's hard to believe that's even possible!"
Big Sister in the Community
While most Big Sister/Little Sister interactions are one-on-one, the organization is taking an active approach toward involving the community at large. At Boston's Codman Square Healthworks recently, for example, the association held a "Big for a Day" event that engaged some of the more than 300 girls currently waiting to be matched with a Big Sister. On another occasion, Lydia Shire, a Boston celebrity chef, took girls behind the scenes of running a restaurant as part of an ongoing program to introduce Little Sisters to successful female entrepreneurs. A growing high school-based mentoring program pairs high school students in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood with a student in a nearby elementary school and also provides leadership training for the high-school girls. And this past year, the organization has also started focusing on making matches between Big Sisters and girls living in the Bromley-Heath housing development, a public housing development in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, as well as hosting activities just for them.
"As the community changes, the girls' needs change," Deborah explains. "And when girls believe in themselves, it transforms the community. There's a ripple effect."
A Grand Circle Foundation Community Partner Since 1995
That sense of community is part of what Deborah appreciates most about Grand Circle Foundation's style of support. "It's not just a check," she says. "They care about the issues we face and work with us to solve them." Since the Foundation became involved with the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, Deborah, the board, and staff members have attended retreats at the company's leadership training center in New Hampshire, and Deborah also served on the Foundation's Community Advisory Group, a coalition of leaders from the Foundation and its long-term nonprofit partners in Boston who met regularly to share ideas for solving common problems. "Harriet and Alan Lewis bring us all together so that we can work in collaboration for the betterment of our city's youth," Deb says. "I love that they do that! We become stronger when we work together to help the kids. At the end of the day, that's what we're all about."
Celebrating a Big Landmark
The Big Sister Association of Greater Boston will turn 60 next year, and the festivities are set to begin in January. The organization will host a kick-off event that will include more than 300 women who have contributed over the years. And several other events focusing on the impact Big Sister has made on the community over the past 60 years are planned throughout the year.
Most importantly, Big Sister Association has a dedicated leader in place as the organization launches into a new decade. "Deb Re is a true gutsy leader who is never afraid to make a tough decision," says Harriet Lewis. "She risked everything by fighting for her vision and focus, and I don't doubt she'd do it again."