Employee success story fuels $150,000 gift to grow the program in King, Pierce Counties
By Hilary Reeves
Saltchuk Resource’s Washington Giving Committee recently announced a $150,000 gift to support Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound – news that couldn’t have come at a better time according to Ryan Macnamara, Marketing Representative at Delta Western/Inlet Petroleum.
“It is important to me that any profitable company give back to their community, in any way that they can,” said Macnamara, who joined the program himself as a “little” at the age of 10 and is now the “big brother” of a thirteen-year-old. “When a company makes this kind of monetary commitment, it shows support beyond measure. I cannot think of another charity with a greater cause in greater need, and I can say that it is this kind of charitable giving that is inspiring and makes me proud to work for such an organization.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound puts children facing adversity on the path to success by providing one-on-one mentoring for kids between the ages of seven and 18 years old. The program serves approximately 1,000 Puget Sound-area children per year, helping them build self-confidence, avoid risky behavior and achieve academic success through the positive relationships they build with adult volunteers in the program.
“It’s a great organization,” said Brian Bogen, president of North Star Petroleum and member of the Washington Giving Committee. “We have a classic example in Ryan of someone who has benefited greatly from the program. It’s a cause near and dear to the heart of one of our most valuable employees, and we will continue to do everything we can to help it succeed.”
Though Macnamara’s mother enrolled him and his brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program when he was 10, it took two years for him to be matched with Oscar, his big brother.
“It was a three-year wait list at that time,” Macnamara said. “It goes to show the amount of kids in need of a program like this, and the lack of available volunteers to get these kids mentors in a timely manner. The program certainly has changed and developed over the years – you see it in the community activities available to the matches, the organizations and companies that are a part of the program, and the overall exposure.”
In Western Washington, the program’s resurgence can be attributed, in part, to Amy R. Mack, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. Mack has been at the organization’s helm for almost two years.
“We are over the moon about the grant,” she said. “During the next three years we hope to steadily grow the agency by 2 to 3 percent per year in King and Pierce Counties.”
Mack, a Midwest native, took a rather indirect path to the Pacific Northwest and the Big Brother Big Sister program.
“I grew up in Indianapolis,” Mack said. “I am fortunate to have been raised in a home with two wonderful parents. Every day after school I was greeted by my Mom with the same question: ‘How was your day?’ She always knew my friends, my opportunities and my challenges. My work ethic comes from my Dad, who taught me the importance of always going the extra mile. Running his own practice for many years, I watched him come home late, eat dinner with his family, and go back to work after dinner to be ready for the next day.”
Mack said her love of nonprofit work began after she moved with her husband to Washington, D.C. to become Chief of Staff at the Corporation for National and Community Service, the independent federal agency that manages the AmeriCorps Program.
“During my years with CNCS, I was on the grant-making side of the table as the agency awarded tens of thousands of AmeriCorps members to local nonprofits across the United States,” she explained. “I was hooked. When my husband accepted a position in North Carolina, my path seemed obvious: get back to the community side of the table and seek a position running a nonprofit. I cut my teeth managing Big Brothers Big Sisters Services, Inc. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for three years. In 2012, my husband was recruited by the University of Washington, and on the day his offer was formalized, I was notified that the president and CEO for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound was leaving his post.”
Mack said that while funding is always at the forefront of her mind, it’s the volunteers who are worth their weight in gold.
“In Seattle, I never feel funding should be an issue,” she explained. “We are grateful for organizations like Saltchuk that value what we do and want to see our work grow and succeed. In actuality, our biggest challenge is finding volunteers. They are the single most-important resource we have. Our volunteers serve completely for free, often times giving up several hours a week and perhaps spending money on an outing to be that caring adult that our kids need. Our volunteers are amazing.”
Oscar and Ryan
“If you’re looking for stories of friendship between me and my ‘big,’ there are countless,” said Macnamara. “I was the Best Man at his wedding. He ordained my wedding, marrying me and my wife. He taught me to drive a car. And at some point during our match, it felt like I became part of Oscar’s family – we would spend holidays together, and anytime his family came into town I would be a part of it. Oscar helped me with college essays and pushed me in the right direction during some tough high school years.”
Macnamara, who lost his father in a farming accident before being enrolled in the program, said he often felt that though things at home were beyond his control, he always had an outlet through Oscar.
“I used to joke that anytime I was in a situation that I had to make a tough decision, I would ask myself this simple question: ‘What Would Oscar Do?’ It may sound funny, but that was my thought process throughout high school when difficult situations would arise.
“There are always decisions in life that can lead you down the right path, or the wrong one. When a young person has a mentor that has that kind of impact on their life, they certainly do not want to let them down. For me, it went beyond that. Not only did I not want to let Oscar down, I wanted him to be proud of my decisions and say, ‘Ryan, that is exactly what I would have done.’ I feel I have carried that mentality through college, and now into my career.”
Macnamara has been career-focused from a young age, thanks to Oscar.
“I remember telling Oscar that I wanted to be an Environmental Engineer, because that is what he did and I wanted to be just like him,” he said. “When he got out of the engineering business, well, my passion for that was gone. Oscar’s next career move was buying a small business and running it as an owner/operator. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I am going to own my own small business someday – that looks like the right path for me.’ When Oscar sold his business, of course, I was done with that too. Lastly, Oscar got into commercial real estate. I knew nothing about it at the time, but certainly did my research to find out what it was all about. And what do you know, I was determined to get into commercial real estate. I aspired to be just like my mentor in many ways, and that is a testament to the impact this program can have on a young person’s life.”
Macnamara eventually earned a degree in Marketing from Western Washington University, the first in his immediate family to graduate from college.
“I attribute a lot of my drive from my experience in seeing Oscar work hard and succeed,” he concluded.
Macnamara said he and Oscar are still very much a part of each others’ lives. Their families are close; they get together regularly for holidays, birthdays – even kid’s sporting events.
“(Building my relationship with Oscar) was a tremendously positive experience for me at a young age, and something that I carry with me still today.”
Ryan and Jordan
Macnamara officially “graduated” from the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program when he was 18 and heading off to college.
“I remember thinking: this experience has shaped me so tremendously that I can’t imagine not doing the same thing for another young person’s life,” he said.
Macnamara told his wife about the program, and she had seen firsthand the relationship he had with Oscar.
“She saw the impact, and how important it was to me, and also wanted to participate and experience this somehow,” Macnamara said. “While doing research about the process, I noticed that they had a new program for couples where both would mentor one child. She was ecstatic when I told her about it, because it would be an opportunity for both of us to contribute and do things together with our “little.”
After college, Macnamara and his wife applied together and were matched with seven-year-old Jordan, who was relatively young for the program.
“It has been an incredible experience to know Jordan at such a young age, and to see him grow up into the teenager he is now at 13 years of age,” Macnamara said. “Jordan is a special young man, always looking for a laugh and entertaining people. He is athletic and smart, very social, and has a bright future in whatever he puts his mind to. I can’t wait to see it.”
Looking to the future
Mack said that while Big Brothers Big Sisters Puget Sound has children currently on the waiting list, the goal is to keep the wait to one year. In order to meet the goal, she said, staff tracks the number of children waiting in a particular area and the corresponding number of volunteers in that same area, and the program doesn’t allow for families to enroll children in zones where there are no volunteers and no hope of recruiting them.
“By employing this system, it is unlikely that a volunteer or a child will remain on the list for more than a set period of time,” Mack explained. “Recently, we also adjusted our recruiting strategies to include recruiting volunteers directly through a company and encouraging the company to allow their employees the opportunity to mentor a child during the work day.”
Mack said she is passionate about changing the lives of the young people the program serves.
“Every 26 seconds, a child drops out of high school,” she concluded. “Most of these dropouts fall behind in elementary school and fall through the cracks by middle school. Children living in poverty have the odds stacked against them at an early age. Often living in a single-parent home or surrounded by violence, depressive symptoms, hunger, these children lack positive role models. A quality mentor can help these young people avoid being among the 23 percent of children in the state of Washington who drop out of school each year.
“Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound is focused on helping the children facing these less than ideal statistics through our quality mentoring programs. We know strong mentoring matches lead to happier, more confident and better performing students. Across King and Pierce Counties we share a vision of mobilizing individuals, institutions, and communities to help these children to either get on track, or stay on track, and realize the educational opportunities that will help them succeed in school, work, and life.”