Successful people span the spectrum of social, cultural and economic upbringings. But there’s one common characteristic you’ll find over and over again. Regardless of their individual childhood circumstances, they had someone, during their formative years, who exposed them to the possibilities of life. Someone told them they were capable of accomplishing great things if they were willing to make positive, healthy choices and work hard.
For Arthur Mollenhauer, it was his Italian grandmother who planted the seeds of possibility in his mind as a child.
A child learns to soar
Growing up in an at-risk neighborhood, in Chicago’s inner city, Mollenhauer knows what it’s like to be a kid in crowded, challenging living conditions. There were times during his childhood when home included multiple families living under one roof.
His grandmother would take the children on a bus to the airport, where they would watch international flights arriving and departing. They would watch the travelers come and go, notice their interesting luggage, imagine where they had come from, and where they might be headed. Through these experiences, Mollenhauer’s mind was opened. He came to understand that anything was possible for his own life, and he was inspired to be a good student, to work hard, and ultimately go to college.
Later, when his career blossomed and took him abroad, he would send postcards to his grandmother from all the places he went, which gave her great pleasure, especially during a period when he had the chance to live and work in Italy.
After a 24 year career in the healthcare industry, and 17 of those years serving as a mentor volunteer to children, Mollenhauer was ready for a change. He wanted to take his management skills where he could make a bigger difference for children. In 2006, he became CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago (BBBS).
Big Brothers and Big Sisters is a mentoring organization focused on high quality, long term outcomes for children. With a focus on one-on-one relationships, the average volunteer engagement is three years.
Recent accomplishments for the Metropolitan Chicago BBBS include 98% of participating children avoided illegal drugs and 100% high school graduation rate over the last four years.
Encouraging children to dream
The BBBS program focuses on independent, one-on-one, mentor/child activities such as park outings, helping with homework, or just going for a walk. They also host social events and activities such as board game sessions to encourage social skills development and build rapport between mentor and child. Lastly, they provide exposure to educational and career opportunities through tours and interviews with local professionals in a range of industries.
The Chicago toy industry has been particularly proactive in creating access for program participants to see how toys and games are created.
Organized group outings to college football games in the region are paired with campus tours so that kids can begin to visualize for themselves a future that includes a college education.
A focus on results
Since Mollenhauer began leading the organization, he’s taken it from being something that was a nice feeling for those involved, to being efficient too. The organization is 100% privately financed. This is unusual in the nonprofit sector.
“We have the mentality that we can solve problems as citizens rather than relying on the government to solve our problems,” he says, “We are inspired by the famous quote from John F. Kennedy Jr, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Mollenhauer runs the organization like a business. They are tax exempt, but they don’t like to be called a charity. They strive to be as efficient and productive as possible with their resources. They work to measure efforts and are always focused on the actual outcome of their work. There is a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility. “As individuals, we hold ourselves to the highest standards,” he says, “We expect one another to do our very best.”
Capturing the imagination of children through play
BBBS has a long and storied relationship with the Chicago toy industry spanning 30 years. During that time, up to 35,000 toys and games have been donated and distributed to Chicago children through holiday parties and hosted event programs. Over 3,000 toys and games are donated to the organization annually, and they are well used throughout the year. Toy companies who attend the Chicago Toy & Game Fair donate a large percentage of those items.
This year, BBBS participants will have the opportunity to attend the fair and meet with professional toy inventors including Peggy Brown, Ruth Green-Synowic and Dan Klitsner. They will have the chance to hear their career stories and talk to them about how people invent toys and games.
Kids grow up and organizations do too
For 25 years, Bruce Lund & Company has volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Each year, he and his team dress up as Santa and his elves to entertain and hand out thousands of toys and games so generously donated by friends and colleagues throughout the toy industry.
He describes the early years as disorganized and chaotic. The elves were more bodyguards than entertainers.
“But that has all changed under the energy, vision and stewardship of Art Mollenhauer,” he says, “They have grown up. Today, Big Brothers and Sisters of Chicago really is an ‘Organization.”
It has been a delight to watch Big brothers-Big Sisters grow up, and become able to do so much more of the marvelous work that is their mission. They transform lives, one by one, not just the lives of the ‘Littles’ they serve, but the lives of the ‘Bigs’ as well: the adults who serve as mentors and friends of children in need of both. Miracles are the stock in trade of Chicago’s very own Big Brothers and Big Sisters. God Bless them and the work that they do. Thank you Art and team.” --Bruce Lund, Lund and Company
If you would like to learn more about how you can participate in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, please visit: www. bbbschgo.org