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Big Brothers Big Sisters President Judy Vredenburgh CW’70 is taking the basic formula behind the organization and expanding it to reach a million troubled children across the country.

By Samuel Hughes | Photo by Jim Graham

“When Sherice and I met each other, she didn’t smile at me for three months,”Judy Vredenburgh CW’70 was saying. “She barely talked. I would go every Wednesday after work to pick her up; and she was always clean, dressed, and ready to meet me—but we barely connected. She didn’t know who this stranger was, and she didn’t really trust me: ‘Who is this old lady coming into my life? She’s certainly not cool.’”

Vredenburgh, then in her early 50s, wasn’t too worried about her own lack of coolness. But even though she was getting encouraging feedback from Sherice’s mother and caseworker, she wondered if she was getting through to this bright, temperamental eighth-grader, whose grades and school-attendance had been plummeting. Then one night the two went to dinner at a local Thai restaurant. And suddenly Sherice opened up.

It came out that she had started a no-holds-barred fistfight at school the day before, and that the girl on the wrong end of it had been one of her friends. As she talked—and talked—it all came roiling out.

“You don’t go home and tell your mom, ‘I beat up my friend,’ but you tell your Big Sister,” says Vredenburgh. “I had built enough consistency that she trusted me enough to open up with me and share how horrible she felt, what a bad thing she had done. And frankly, I don’t know where she would have gone with that anger. She was so angry, so frustrated, and she felt so guilty, so bad—all of those emotions at the same time.”

It was a turning point. “I said, ‘This is not a great way to handle it. Just walk away—call me, call somebody else,’” recalls Vredenburgh. “She realized that nothing positive had come from beating up her friend—it had just made things worse.”

They kept talking, and eventually reached an agreement: Sherice would stay away from fights.

That was five years ago. In the intervening years, Sherice’s grades and attitude improved significantly, and she was involved in just one other fight —and only on the fringes of that one. This past June she graduated from high school, and is now working full-time—OK, it’s McDonald’s—and hoping to go to community college.

Vredenburgh is quick to deflect the credit to others. Sherice’s mother made the initial phone call and made sure that Sherice stayed with the program. Big Brothers Big Sisters would have provided Sherice with another qualified Big Sister if Vredenburgh hadn’t been there. And Sherice herself had to do the real work. But the bottom line is that, with a little help from a caring adult, she did it—and, in doing so, gave herself a chance.

Sherice is just one girl, and her story represents just one, tentative success. Kids—the troubled and the not-so-troubled—all have different stories to tell, and predicting how they will turn out is a dicey business. But a rough, simple formula still applies: Caring Adult + Foundering Kid = Less Trouble + More Hope. Is it rocket science? No. World-changing? Yes.

This is where Vredenburgh comes in. Because she is not just a Big Sister; she’s the Biggest Sister of them all: president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the nation’s oldest and largest youth-mentoring organization, based in Philadelphia and now celebrating its 100th year. From its modest beginnings in 1904—when 39 men answered the call by a New York Juvenile Court clerk named Ernest Coulter to become “big brothers” to troubled boys—the organization that evolved now matches more than 220,000 Little Brothers and Sisters with carefully selected adults in some 470 communities around the country. Its longevity is rooted in a philosophy that borders on the timeless.

“It’s a very universal idea—that it’s through a relationship that a child has a chance to see what’s possible, to have their doors opened, their horizons expanded,” Vredenburgh explains in a voice that combines motherly warmth with executive steel. “And through a Big Brother or Big Sister, professionally supported, we bring people together from completely different worlds.”

The process of bridging those worlds and generations has been refined and fine-tuned over the years, which is why BBBS is considered the gold standard  for matching kids with adult mentors.

“If you just arbitrarily throw folks together, you will not get the same impact that you get when you go through the Big Brother Big Sister process,” says Joseph Tierney, executive director of the Fox Leadership Program at Penn and a member of the board of trustees at BBBS’s Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter. “It is a very focused organization with very clear guidelines for how one does those activities, particularly the recruitment and screening of volunteers. That careful selection and screening process increases the probability that there will be a meaningful impact on the young person.”

Tierney knows something about BBBS’s process—and its results. Ten years ago, as a senior researcher for Public/Private Ventures (P/PV)—a nonprofit organization that evaluates youth programs—he undertook a randomized study of 959 children in BBBS programs around the country. It found that “Littles” were 46 percent less likely to use drugs, 27 percent less likely to initiate alcohol use, and nearly a third less likely to hit someone than were their peers who did not have a Big Brother or Sister. In minority communities, the difference is even more striking: Little Brothers and Sisters were 70 percent less likely to initiate drug use than other similar minority youth. They also had better relationships with their parents, skipped approximately half as many days of school, and showed “modest gains” in grade-point averages. (For the record, that study took place under Vredenburgh’s predecessor, Thomas McKenna, now a research project manager at Penn’s Center for Research on Youth and Social Policy.)

“My first reaction to the study was, I didn’t believe it,” recalls Dr. John DiIulio C/G’80, then P/PV’s director of the Partnership for Research on Religion and At-Risk Youth, and now the Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society at Penn. “My second reaction was, if I did believe it, I would have to change somewhat fundamentally my own approach to social programming. So I literally asked to see the raw data. And the more I pored over the data, the more astounded I was. These numbers not only passed the smell test; they passed the kick-the-tires-hard test and the try-to-pull-it-apart-every-way-you-could test.

“To find those kinds of impacts from what looks like a relatively homely, small intervention is really astounding,” he adds. “Especially since this study was a genuine, full-scale, randomized, controlled experiment. So at first I didn’t believe it—and then I became an evangelist for it.”

That small, homely intervention is about to get, well, big. In 1999, when Vredenburgh took over, BBBS was matching some 118,000 at-risk kids around the country with program-approved adults. By last year, that number had jumped to 221,000.

“We doubled in four years,” says Vredenburgh, “but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re planning to go from 221,000 matches in 2004 to 440,000 in 2007.” By 2010, the goal is a cool million matches.

At this level, it’s easy to lose sight of the human faces behind the numbers, and what intervention on that kind of scale can mean. But as Vredenburgh sits in a modest conference room at BBBSA headquarters in Philadelphia’s Chinatown section, talking about her plans and strategies and worldview, one senses that she doesn’t make those goals lightly.

“I was hired to take this incredible, life-changing interdiction and take our organization to scale—to become a serious, performance-oriented growth organization,” she says. “It’s a huge growth, but when you think about how generous people are in this country, the fact that today we have about half a million active supporters—why couldn’t we have millions of people giving to Big Brothers Big Sisters according to their means? One million of those people matched with 1 million kids, and maybe five times that number, 5 million people, giving according to their means.”

Oddly enough, money is not something that most people think about when they think of BBBS.

“Everybody seems to understand that we need volunteers,” Vredenburgh says. “And we do need volunteers. However, we don’t match any volunteers without professionals—and we’re really, really well respected at doing that. But people don’t understand that we need money.”

If her growth-charts appear grandiose, her vision is buttressed by real-world experience, resolve—and dedication to her cause.

“Judy’s a terrific leader for that organization,” says Tierney. “She focuses on quality while at the same time she’s interested in expanding the number of children who are served—and that’s a powerful combination.”

She also has a good product to sell. “Our organization is incredibly relevant,” says Vredenburgh. “When you get a chance to tell the story, people get that young people need a chance to be educated so they can be highly productive, contributing members of society, so they can themselves be good parents, be taxpayers, be gainfully employed, et cetera. Regardless of what your political philosophies are, it’s appealing.”

“When you’ve been around, dealing with various community-service groups, you get a sense that some people are on fire with a mission, and some are good at performance art,” says John DiIulio. “This is not performance art. You don’t hear as much about her as you do about some national nonprofit leaders, in part because she’s got that rare combination of this incredible talent and gifts—and almost no ego. She has enough ego to care, but not only does it not get in the way, it doesn’t at all obscure the heart that’s there.”

Back in the spring of 1970, as she pondered the looming job market, the young woman then known as Judy Nemez told her husband-to-be—a Wharton MBA student named Donald Vredenburgh WG’70—that she intended to have two careers.

The first would be in the for-profit arena. “I was going to show that women could break some barriers and manage a little bit differently—and achieve,” recalls Vredenburgh. “I’m very achievement-oriented. But then I would have a second career, where I would work on social-justice issues, helping particularly the disadvantaged.”

Her long-term vision has proven to be 20-20. After earning her MBA at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she spent two high-achieving decades in the for-profit world, including a stint as CEO of Chess King (a specialty-store division of Melville Corporation). In 1993 she swapped the for- for a non- and became senior vice president of the March of Dimes, responsible for revenue-development and marketing. During her six years there, revenues increased by 50 percent.

Since she took over BBBS in 1999, Vredenburgh’s for-profit experience—especially her talent for stretching dollars—has proved to be invaluable. “Our cost-per-match has gone down 25 percent in the last four years,” she says proudly. “Forbesmagazine analyzed 200 charities at Christmas time [2003], and they selected only 10 charities to give the Gold Standard to. And we were one of the 10, because we use money so incredibly well.”

“Judy deserves a sort of case study in organizational entrepreneurial leadership,” says DiIulio. “She doesn’t waste anything, any potential human or financial resources. It’s always for the cause.”

In Vredenburgh’s view, running a nonprofit organization “is in many ways more difficult” than running a for-profit, especially since “we need people who are achievement-oriented and high performers and who respond to challenges.

“Every time we satisfy a customer in nonprofit, we drain resources,” she adds. “And every time you satisfy a customer in for-profit, the resources come back to you. That is really a profound difference. It sounds really simple, but it makes our work much more complicated.”

When Vredenburgh talks about “taking the organization to scale,” she explains that it involves “transforming every aspect of our business in order to go to a size that’s five times what we are today.” That means more than just quadrupling the number of matches over the next five years. It also means ramping up the technology and the linkage between the local BBBS affiliates and the national organization, and between BBBS and potential donors. A daunting challenge, but the consensus is that she’s up to it.

“Judy Vredenburgh has had a tremendously positive impact on Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and frankly on the local organization here,” says Marlene Olshan, director of the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of BBBS. “She was the catalyst of change here, and she and I have developed a close working relationship, so that we can have synergies in ways that were never seen before between local and national organizations.”

“Judy’s genius was to declare what seemed to be an absolutely impossible growth projection and goal,” says DiIulio, “and to galvanize people within the organization to achieve this goal, as well as galvanize her external constituencies.”

Most of the local BBBS organizations, Olshan notes, don’t have the time, money, or resources to do much in the way of research and development. But under Vredenburgh, the national organization has been able to carry out some important R&D.

Consider something as seemingly minor as BBBS’s recruiting message.

“In the old days, a lot of the message was, ‘Help needy kids,’” Olshan points out. “In the research that Judy did, they found that that was really a turnoff—it was just too much for people.” So they tried something a little more upbeat: “Little Moments. Big Magic.” It worked. “What motivated people is the message that it’s fun to hang out with kids,” Olshan adds. “So the message emphasized that you’re going to get as much out of this as the kids.”

Vredenburgh is living testimony to that. When she took the job at BBBS, she had to move to Philadelphia by herself (her husband is a professor at City University of New York, and her daughter was then an undergraduate at Yale). She quickly realized that it was a good time to become a Big Sister. “I’m starting a new life here, I’m lonely, I have a new job, and it was an amazing way to become a friend with a young person, share my experiences, be a role model,” she says. But there was another reason, too: She knew the experience would help her understand on a visceral level just what it is the people in her organization do.

“If you really are customer-oriented, then it’s really helpful to be the customer,” she explains. “This is an example of how, by staying really close to what our program is and does, and seeing how our caseworkers work and how the dynamics in a relationship build over time, I really see what our work is. But then you can’t be too personal about it, because you’re a sample of one.”

Even more important, perhaps, is Vredenburgh’s work in creating new paradigms for matching needy kids with adult mentors.

BBBS, she points out, can match a child with an adult in several ways. One is through the traditional “open-ended community program,” in which a parent or guardian requests a Big Brother or Sister for a child. The obvious limitation to that approach is that children who have a parent or guardian willing and able to make that phone call already have at least the rudiments of a support system in place. The neediest ones often do not.

To address their needs, BBBS has to be somewhat more proactive. That involves working with institutions—schools, for instance.

“When you go into these Title 1 schools, these really needy schools, the teachers, the guidance counselors, the principals know which kids are really in trouble,” Vredenburgh points out. “They’re either bullies or they’re withdrawn. And they tell us which kids to match.”

Her goal is to match at least 20 percent of the most troubled kids in these schools with Big Brothers or Sisters, she explains. “When we do that, we not only help those needy kids start to learn and be able to be reached by the teacher—we have great data around changes in lateness, absenteeism, retention in grade, performing well enough to be promoted to the next group—but the whole environment in that classroom and in that school starts to change for all the kids. So you get to a tipping point where you really have a different kind of educational experience and attainment for all the kids in that elementary school. If there are 200, 250 kids in the school, and you’re reaching 40 or 50 of those kids, all of the kids have an improved environment in which to learn—and the teachers have a much better chance to really teach.”

In recent years, a rich source of Big Brothers and Sisters in the Philadelphia area—both school-based and community-based—has been Penn. Through the Fox Leadership Program, which works with Civic House and men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy, among others, some 140 Penn students have become Big Brothers and Sisters. That’s the second-largest university-based BBBS program in the country, and don’t be surprised if it is soon the biggest.

“Penn students are very community-service-oriented, and we’re thrilled to be able to provide them with the opportunity to be a mentor or work within the organization,” says Tierney, who stresses the importance of flexible hours and structures—and of having fun—for both Bigs and Littles. “The local [BBBS] agency has made such a commitment to this program that they have actually put someone in place here at Penn—her office is right across from mine. They see Penn as a win/win situation—it has quality undergraduates, and they have kids in need in the community, and they see Penn as an excellent way to help them fulfill their mission—which is to serve as many kids as possible in the Philadelphia area.” 

A few weeks after taking over BBBS in 1999, Vredenburgh arrived at her office and glanced at her schedule for the day. It was jammed—not surprising for a new CEO—and among her appointments was a brief meeting with someone from Penn’s Department of Development and Alumni Relations (DAR). Vredenburgh’s reaction was guarded, to put it gently.

“I was swamped,” she recalls, “and I see on my calendar this ‘Linda Kronfeld—15-minute appointment’ somehow squeezed in.” When Kronfeld arrived, the first thing Vredenburgh said to her was, “How did you get in?”

Kronfeld had several angles she could work. She was a Big Sister herself and a Penn alumna (C’78), as well as executive director of principal gifts at DAR, which gave her access to some unique documents. She quickly pulled out one: a typewritten résumé, circa 1970, from one Judy Nemez Vredenburgh. It was an unlikely ice-breaker—“It was frankly embarrassing what I said on there,” says Vredenburgh with a rueful laugh—but it worked. It turned out that Kronfeld had an ulterior motive that went beyond just persuading Vredenburgh to renew her ties to her alma mater.

“She came in with the express agenda of telling me about this new endowed-chair professor who was being brought back to Penn,” says Vredenburgh. That would be DiIulio—who, it turned out, had orchestrated the sneak-appointment. Kronfeld wanted Vredenburgh to be one of the first speakers in the Fox Leadership Program, and she was arranging for her to have lunch with DiIulio.

“He wanted to meet me because he was on the council at P/PV, and he could not believe this data around Big Brothers Big Sisters,” explains Vredenburgh. “It was so powerful; we did such quality work; and he wanted to meet this person who was coming in to take this organization to scale. And [Kronfeld] wanted me to meet him so I could get reconnected with Penn.”

And so Vredenburgh and DiIulio had lunch, and given the gushy things they say about each other (and the fact that she convinced him to join the board of BBBS), it is fair to say that they hit it off. As they began to brainstorm, they talked about enlisting churches to help find volunteers and financial supporters for BBBS, since one of the key tenets of DiIulio’s worldview is that faith-based programs are often the most effective and well-organized means of reaching troubled kids. Somewhere along the line DiIulio suggested that children who have a parent in jail should be targeted. That hit home for Vredenburgh, whose daughter Cynthia—now a graduate student at Wharton—was a Big Sister to a girl whose mother was in jail.

“I said, ‘John, that’s perfect, because we always reach kids who have a parent in jail,’” recalls Vredenburgh. “‘Of course we want to reach the neediest kids.’”

And sad to say, there is no shortage of them. Some 2 million children in the United States—more than half of whom are less than 10 years old—have at least one parent behind bars. According to a U.S. Senate report, children of prisoners are six times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives than other children. Without effective intervention, the report predicted, up to 70 percent of them will become involved with the criminal-justice system. Given that the nation’s prison population is increasing by nearly six percent a year—and that the number of women in prison has more than doubled since 1990—the need to mentor these kids is urgent.

DiIulio convinced the Pew Foundation to fund a pilot program for children of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated parents in Philadelphia, and he brought in former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode WG’69 Hon’84 to run it. The program is named Amachi, from a West African word meaning “who knows but what God has brought us through this child,” and its motto is “People of Faith Mentoring Children of Promise.” The idea was to recruit volunteers from inner-city congregations to provide one-to-one mentoring to the children. BBBS would oversee the screening, matching, and training of mentors, and its main partner, along with the churches, was the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at Penn (now the Program for Research and Teaching on Religion and Urban Civil Society). Within 60 days they had 700 volunteers.

Since its inception in 2000, the Amachi program in BBBS’s southeastern Pennsylvania region, working through some 60 churches, has served more than 800 children. The program has spread to 118 BBBS agencies around the country, including one in Brooklyn backed by U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton Hon’93of New York. And for the first time, there is significant federal money, thanks largely to DiIulio’s stint as director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the George W. Bush administration (where some pundits dubbed him the “God czar”). In his 2003 State of the Union Address, President Bush proposed a $150 million initiative that would bring mentors to 100,000 children of prisoners, and that has so far led to $50 million for the Amachi program and another $50 million for mentoring children in Title 1 schools.

“I don’t know of any program in the country of any national nonprofit that can claim to have an initiative that has won the enthusiastic public support of everybody from Hillary Rodham Clinton to George W. Bush,” says DiIulio with palpable pride. “They speak about the program in glowing terms, and they’ve embraced it.

“Generally, for reasons good and bad—mostly bad—programs tend to develop a kind of political profile: either they’re liberal programs or they’re conservative programs,” he notes. “This one, and Big Brothers Big Sisters itself, has kept mentoring where it should be—above the fray and close to the heart. It works, and it’s about improving the life prospects of young people. And the technology is loving, caring, responsible adults.”

Like, say, Vredenburgh, for whom running BBBS is a “dream job—the best job in the world,” even though it comes with its full share of stress and has forced her to become a commuter spouse.

“I’m doing this job because I want to help kids,” she says. “I am at a place where I would not spend my full-time career on anything I didn’t care deeply about. And helping kids fulfill their potential is just an enormous opportunity.

“I kind of pinch myself every day,” she adds quietly. “I hope I never take it for granted that I’ve been able to enact the dream.”

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