More than a century ago, a New York City juvenile court clerk could only watch as boy after boy was marched past his desk on their way into the prison system. It was then Ernest Kent Coulter knew something had to change, and that change started with mentorship.
Coulter founded Big Brothers in 1904, matching 34 volunteers with the same number of troubled boys, all tasked with one job: Befriend them and guide them. Like they would a little brother.
Alicia Guevara understands the importance of an organization like that, its sole mission to provide children with the possibility of greater opportunities through mentoring. So important, in fact, the Riverdale resident transitioned from the Bronx poverty assistance group Part of the Solution to the top citywide spot of that organization Coulter founded so many years ago: Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City.
“Working as I have for social justice and for young people all throughout the five boroughs has been an honor.” Guevara said. “It helps me to pay forward all the opportunities I did have.”
While the missions between the two organizations are different — Big Brothers Big Sisters provides mentoring, while POTS primarily addresses hunger — Guevara believes the two reflect how large of an impact charity organizations can make in the community. In fact, it’s something Guevara believes could have made a difference for her growing up near Fordham Road in a lower middle-class family.
Money might have been tight, but Guevara’s parents did what they could to support their children. It allowed Guevara to find that path of success, leading her to eventually graduate from Columbia Business School.
“I was a first-generation college kid,” she said. “My family did all they could for me, but I know I would have benefited from Big Brothers Big Sisters.”
Each year, Big Brothers Big Sisters matches nearly 6,000 boys and girls in the city with an adult mentor, each of whom work with what Guevara describes as a well-trained staff of professional social workers. The adults are the mentors, or the “bigs,” while their young companions are known as “littles.”
The idea of the program is for the bigs and littles to spend time with each other, whether through outings to places like parks, or even through simple conversation. It’s regular contact for someone in need of a mentor, and someone to reach out to when faced with some of the decisions young people face when they get to that fork in the path, with one direction headed for good, and the other not so good.
Guevara is the first woman to lead the organization. It follows the leadership diversity coming from the top of the national organization, which has been led by former Tampa, Florida, mayor Pam Iorio since 2014. Although thousands of littles are matched each year with mentors, Guevara believes there’s more the citywide organization can do, especially in the Bronx.
“Only 2 percent of our mentors are located in the Bronx,” she said, “yet there are so many people here that could really benefit from a mentor that is also a neighbor.”
A neighbor — a helping hand from across the street — could provide great opportunities and support in a community, Guevara said. According to the organization’s website, the population of children living at or below the poverty line in New York City is half a million.
Statistics like that keep Guevara up at night.
“We want to continue the spectrum of excellence that this organization represents,” Guevara said. “We do a lot of great work, but there’s so much more to do.”
And there’s always something that can be done. It costs money to maintain an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters — nearly $10 million last year alone. And about a third of those costs are covered by private donation. However, nearly half come from special events — like the Gridiron Games.
Started in 1994, the Gridiron Games takes its name from the lined fields used for a charity touch-football game featuring 200 littles and their bigs. It’s an afternoon where everyone — from stay-at-home parents to some of New York City’s biggest lawyers — take to the field to toss around the pigskin, all for charity.
The charity in this case is the mentoring organization Guevara leads, raising more than $3 million alone for the organization over the years. It also provides what Guevara calls a lifetime of joy and excitement for all those involved.
This year’s games were played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the NFL home of both the New York Giants and the New York Jets. And even that fundraiser has a local connection. Its co-founder, Jared Landaw, is Guevara’s neighbor in Riverdale.
“It’s a magical and exciting day for everyone,” Guevara said.
Mentoring makes a big difference in any community, but only as long as it’s sustained, Guevara said. That means organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters can never just rest on its laurels, and must always work to ensure no young person ever feels like they’re completely alone.
“We’ve got to be engaged in this,” Guevara said. “We are a national organization — there are 249 chapters across the country. I’m proud to help lead the first chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and we will do even more to help youth in these communities.”