Jeri Swinton has been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kentuckiana for nearly three decades as the chapter’s CEO and director, over half as long as BBBS Kentuckiana has been in operation; the chapter is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017.
As part of the national Big Brothers Big Sisters network, the chapter provides positive role models for children who don’t always have such models in their lives, whether due to economics, or matters of the heart. Through a thorough vetting of potential Big Brothers and Sisters, Little Brothers and Sisters are paired with adults who are able to light a path toward a better life.
Swinton “worked for several years as an assistant director at the Shelter for Battered Women, providing residential assistance for domestic violence victims.” The job pushed her to find a way to end the cycle of violence “by providing prevention services to boys and girls so that they would understand” domestic violence needn’t ever be acceptable, or a part of their lives.
Searching around for opportunities matching her need to help young children, BBBS Kentuckiana “seemed like a natural fit” for the next chapter in her career. Part of the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters is to help young children at-risk learn how to resolve conflict through more positive methods and tactics.
Looking back, Swinton says she was right about her decision to join BBBS Kentuckiana.
“There probably is no more impactful way than having a one-on-one friendship”
“Children don’t appreciate being talked down to. They do follow closely the examples that adults set. It is a huge impact when people compare children that have had the positive of an adult role model in a long-term relationship, one-on-one. They are far more likely to go to college, to have careers, are far more likely to earn more in their careers, than children of the same demographic who do not have the benefit of that role model.”
The most rewarding aspect of Swinton’s role as CEO of BBBS Kentuckiana is those children who do participate in the program are later involved in community service, going so far as to take on leadership roles in the act of service — including becoming Big Brothers and Big Sisters themselves.
Yet, there are challenges in finding the right role models to pair with the hundreds of children looking for guidance. The main challenge in finding the right mentors, according to Swinton, comes down to commitment: per research conducted by the national organization, a relationship between a Big and Little lasting less than six months does more harm to the child than never having been paired up at all. Every Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter stresses to its potential candidates that they need to be there for their Littles for a minimum of one year; some who come through the door fail this test, claiming uncertainty as to where their lives will be in one month, let alone a single year.
Once the main obstacle is cleared, Swinton says the new Bigs are matched with Littles based on interests and proximity to each other. The new pairs are then able to bond and grow over activities, developing relationships which last a long time with coaching and support from each chapter. She also says Bigs who are 50 and above have matches which last longer than those in their early 20s; the discrepancy is due to the older Bigs leading more settled lives than those who are still developing theirs.
BBBS Kentuckiana holds numerous fundraisers throughout the year to help build up and improve upon the resources and strategies used in creating and sustaining a Big/Little match, the biggest of which is Bowl For Kids’ Sake. Swinton says the fundraiser is also the chapter’s biggest “friend-raiser,” netting several thousands of dollars in donation annually via friends asking friends to sponsor a bowler for $10 and up. This year’s edition is seeking a minimum donation per bowler of $119.67, the last four digits in honor of the chapter’s founding in 1967.
“The Bowl For Kids’ Sake is tons of fun,” Swinton said. “People bowl with other people in the community. We provide dance music, and we give away door prizes. The participants don’t pay for their bowling; we provide two free games of bowling. Papa John’s is our sponsor, so people get fresh Papa John’s pizza… It only takes a couple of hours, and we’re scheduling teams now through March and April to come out and participate in Bowl For Kids’ Sake.”
Another fundraiser, The BIG GIVE Telethon — held in partnership with WHAS-TV, and featuring appearances and stories by the chapter’s matches — has long roots going back to the late 1980s. According to Swinton, baseball legend and Big Brother Hank Aaron came to Louisville for a BBBS Kentuckiana event, who introduced the legend to Louisville’s media outlets.
While following up with WHAS, then-anchor and Hank Aaron fan Gary Rodemeier asked Swinton if her chapter would be interested in doing a weekly feature with the television station, thus beginning a relationship lasting to this day. The telethon came about a couple of years ago, pulling in $26,000 in 2016 in its latest milestone.
“I think that one of the things that makes us more relevant than ever right now,” Swinton said, “is that with all of the conflict during the last election… that I think Big Brothers Big Sisters offers an opportunity for people to not judge each other by prejudice; that we offer an opportunity to really get to know people; and that we are probably the biggest bridge builder across geographic areas, across racial lines, religious boundaries, because people have the opportunity to really get to know each other as people… once people make that relationship with a child, then they learn not to judge, and they learn to appreciate the circumstances some of our kiddos come from.”