The Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

A non-profit organization that promotes friendship

Samantha Geiger (She/Her)

More stories from Samantha Geiger (She/Her)


Drew Kaiser with his then Little Brother, Jameson

INTRO: This is Samantha Geiger, doing a podcast interviewing with a non-profit organization in Eau Claire. Drew Kaiser is a marketing manager for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program, he has been there for a little over eight years, previous to starting at Big Brothers Big Sisters a business partner and he owned Iris photography. Now as a full time Marketing Manager, he does freelance photography where he does weddings, senior portraits and much more. 

GEIGER: I would just like to start out by asking what your position is at Big Brothers, Big Sisters?

KAISER: Yeah, so I am the marketing manager. Drew Kaiser.

GEIGER: What do you do with your position?

KAISER: That’s a great question. I think the nature of small nonprofits is that everyone does a little bit of everything. So as marketing manager, I’m primarily a communications volunteer, recruitment is a big function of my position as well as there’s a lot of fun development tasks. So graphic design, multimedia creation, storytelling boots and outreach social media and web administration. You know a little bit of everything. I do some programmatic things, some fun things, some general awareness.

GEIGER: When did you start with Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

KAISER: I have been with the organization for a little over eight years. I started in January of 2014.

GEIGER: What made you want to work with them? 

KAISER: Well I guess, I’ve always appreciated being a person who gives back to the community and when the position was available I was looking for work at that point. I had been running my own photography studio for a number of years prior to starting the Big Brothers Big Sisters. The grind of a sales environment was less appealing to me than using those skills to do something good. 

GEIGER: Do you still own that business? 

KAISER: Not in the same capacity. So, at that point it was me and a business partner and we were incorporated as a company called Iris Photographics. I still do freelance photography, so some weddings, senior portraits, commercial photography and a little bit of journalistic work. 

GEIGER: Who is Big Brothers Big Sisters, and what do you guys do, in your own words? 

KAISER: I think simply put Big Brothers Big Sisters is the communities we serve. So we’re a little bit different than a lot of nonprofit organizations because, you can go to The Boys and Girls Club and you can see the workers and you can see a group of kids, and you can see their programs in action. The nature of how we operate our programs, is you’ve probably encountered a match out in public before. They look like they’re either mother and child or father and child or siblings or whatever it might be because what we’re really stressing is some amount of normalcy. You know, we talk about our programs as a mentoring program, but really what we do is great friendships. 

KAISER: There’s a core staff that facilitates the program, but our program wouldn’t exist without the donors that step up in our community to fund the programs and the volunteers that spend time with kids on a weekly basis. So, in order to do that it takes a lot of support from volunteers too. We have a volunteer board that helps guide and help them make decisions on where our future is. We’ve got a lot of volunteers that help for events for planning, fundraising, or planning activities for kids. So it’s a big community effort.

GEIGER: What’s the volunteer program like?

KAISER: So there’s two basic types of programs that we have, and then there’s a couple of subcategories within them but big overview, there’s a community-based program and a site-based program. So when I talk about, you may have encountered volunteers out in public. Our community-based program, a volunteer and a child get together and they can do whatever activities they like to be out in. Whereas in our site-based programs, it’s a set location. 

KAISER: You schedule a day of the week that you’d go in a specific time. So it’s an ongoing, basically the lack of a better word, an ongoing appointment. You know, it’s something that you can fit into your school schedule or fit into you work schedule. Oftentimes that site is the child’s school, but not always. We operate a program through the Boys and Girls Clubs. We have a site-based program at UWRF(University of Wisconsin River Falls) and at various different places. We have different types of community sites that we can have sites at. So the volunteer programs we’re looking for an adult, generally 19 years old or older because 18-year olds puts you a little bit close to the age of some of the kids sometimes. But we will talk to 18-year olds about volunteering. 

KAISER: Somebody who’s willing and able to pass a background screen. We look at seven years of your residential history. We do a national state and local background check of all our volunteers. Then we do some training and get them kind of acclimated to what population of children might be facing or might be looking for in a match and then we support that match. So our programs isn’t just here you go, figure it out. There is, what we call, a match support specialist who is kind of a caseworker that’s assigned to each volunteer and child and they help to facilitate the friendship as well as build a relationship with themselves. 

KAISER: They contact the parents of the kids. They’re contacting potentially school administrators or teachers and the volunteers on a monthly basis just to check in and make sure everything is safe, progressing along nicely and offer support directivity ideas. 

GEIGER: You just answered one of my questions of what age do you have to be to be a Big Brother Big Sisters, that you recommend 19-years-old? 

KAISER: We recommend 19. So in some cases we do actually have a program called high-school bigs in some places where there’s a high school that’s in walking proximity to an elementary school, we’ll match high school age students with elementary age students. But thats more of an exception than a rule. We have a program out in Augusta in Fall Creek for that. We have a program in New Richmond. We’ve been working on getting one off the ground in Cornell. 

KAISER: But that’s usually small school districts that are able to get the high school students to the elementary school students effectively. So yeah, usually we’re looking at 19 or older. The kids in our community-based program can be as young as seven years old in our site-based programs, we can start them as young five and they can stay in our program until they graduate from high school. So that might be 18 or 19-years-old. The average age of children that we’re trying to make matches with is between about seven and 14. 

GEIGER: Talking about the children that are enrolled, is there a specific criteria they need to meet or can any parent enroll their child? 

KAISER: The number one criteria is that they want to be involved. It does no good to try and put a kid into the program if they have no interest in making friends with an older individual. That’s really the only thing. For a long time, we talked about children facing adversity. The idea behind the program certainly is that it’s an extra adult friend to help them over some of life’s challenges. 

KAISER: The thing about adversity is that it’s many shapes. A significant portion of our kids have had parents who have faced incarceration. I think about a quarter or so of our littles, one or more parents who are currently or previously been incarcerated. So that’s significant portion of our population. There’s a fair amount of single parent households. But there’s also a fair amount of dual parent, dual income, middle-class stable, loving, happy homes. So we try not to tell people that we don’t turn anyone away if there’s interest and a perceived need, then we help to fill that gap. 

KAISER: Because childhood is hard, getting through adolescence is hard. So if you feel as a parent or as a child that you need someone else we’re here for it. 

GEIGER: You mentioned community-based program and site-based program, can you tell me the difference between the two and what different aspects are there to it? 

KAISER: In terms of the requirements for volunteers, they’re pretty similar. The main difference obviously is the scope of things. The one requirement that is different for volunteers between the two is that with a community-based volunteer you do need to be licensed, insured, and have access to a car because the expectation in a community-based matches that you’re potentially picking that child up and going around and doing things. 

KAISER: A site-based match you’re going to a single location. So actually we don’t know our transportation of the child in a site-based relationship, unless there’s a special event that we are holding and we get parental permission to do that. So that’s really the main difference is the ability to go out and do different things. We tend to try, if at all possible, if a potential volunteer thinks that they want to be going out and doing things in public and being more flexible than we want to push them in that direction you can always switch programs, but it just takes a little bit of effort to get from one to the other. 

KAISER: We have slightly different systems in place. The other aspect from the child’s side of things is that we know, I mentioned the match support and on the community-based side we do need to have regular consistent contact with the parent or guardian in order to maintain kind of that third-party perspective of how the relationship is going in a site-based program. Although we like to have a consistent contact with the parents and we’d like to see parental involvement, we can get that third-party verification from people at the school or people at the site. Sometimes the parents have a busy work schedule or life, and it’s a little bit hard to get them to commit to returning phone calls or returning emails. So, the site-based program can work better for some families where we can work through our site partners to maintain safe contact monitoring. 

GEIGER: What is the process of becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister? Like you mentioned, what is the process to transfer programs? 

KAISER: So the process has a fair number of steps because obviously our number one goal first and foremost is child safety. A lot of the kids do have some amount of trauma to them. So, we want to be sensitive to the fact that our process should not retraumatize. We have a lot of barriers in place. Although we have a lot of need for volunteers, we’re also an organization that will turn someone down. So that’s a unique feature of us is we do not accept every volunteer. We accept most volunteers because we truly think that there’s a place for most people to be able to give back to a child and the desire to do so is a high bar. 

KAISER: It starts with obviously conversation, either someone meets someone like myself or one of our teammates out in public, or learns about us in some way, shape or form. The first step form there is to inquire. We’ll provide more detailed information at that point about program options, details and how the process is. We prompt them to fill out an application. From there we ask for consent to run a background check, we also ask for several references. 

KAISER: So when they return that application, then we can start the process of vetting out this person. We look at seven years of residential history. So if you’ve moved and live in different communities over that time period. Then we need to reach out to each locale and run a background. As well as look at higher level background screens. So the total number of background checks that we have to run can vary pretty greatly. Some people have lived in one place the entire time and they come back in a matter of days, sometimes its going to be weeks before we’re going to get all those background checks back.

KAISER: So then we also, like I said, have to contact their references, have a conversation with them about how they perceive the potential volunteer as a fit for the activity. We explain the activity and ask them some pointed questions. When everything comes back looking good, we sit down for an interview with our volunteer and dive a little bit deeper. The interview can last essentially a couple of hours. But we want to get to know the person, what’s important to them, what they enjoy doing, relationship management on a basis of trying to create compatibility. We really want to know what do you do with your free time?

KAISER: How do you value friendships? What are you morals? Not that we have a moral test or anything like that but if someone is coming into the program with deep beliefs, we want to make sure that there’s some compatibility between the family of the child and the child, as well as the volunteer. Once we’ve gone through interview process, we look at our pool of children in the area that worked for the program that the volunteer is looking to get into and try and find the child that we think is going to be the most suited to match with those personalities and interests. 

KAISER: Then we’ll make a proposition, we’ll say this is the child we’re thinking of. They’re this old, they like to do this. This is why they’re coming to the program and have a conversation about if we think that’s a good relationship. If the volunteer agrees, if the family agrees, then we move on to an introduction where one of our staff members will sit down with both parties and kind of go over the expectations of our program and get to know you, do activities with them so that they’re not just left cold to figure out how to build this. 

KAISER: Then they schedule the first outing and go on from there. There’s the ongoing match sport where our team will contact them from there on out. Try to just make sure that things are progressing, how they laid it out in the match instruction. So that’s the basic process. 

GEIGER: If one were to want to switch programs, how do they do that? 

KAISER: Basically you express it to your match support specialists and it’s not guaranteed because you know if you’re going from community to site you’d obviously need to figure out if the site is available. So is the child going to a school where we have an established program? If not, are they going to another location on a consistent basis for the established programs? So we’d have to work through the logistics of the when and where. But our team is pretty capable of doing that. On the other side of things, if you’re going from a site-based to a community-based it’s looking at the unmet criteria from the one program to the next. 

KAISER: Getting the car insurance information and making sure that they’ve got that access to the car. Then making sure that we can have consistent support from the parent or guardian. So usually by the point that a match is trying to decide if they want to go from a site-based or community-based we have a pretty good sense of the communicability of the parents and so we can already kind of gauge whether or not that possibility. Usually when they get to that point, there’s parental support behind it. So it makes it a pretty easy thing for us. We don’t necessarily advertise the switching of programs a whole lot because so much of what we’re doing is relationship building that by the point that matches saying, “well geez I kind of wish we had done it this way” It’s been a conversation for a while. 

GEIGER: You kind of just answered this question too, but how do they get matched? You said it’s just through social workers? 

KAISER: Yeah so our program team is composed of two different parts. There’s the match support specialist that I already talked about. That’s kind of the caseworker who’s the ongoing contact for the match. There’s also our enrollment team. So, when we talk about the process of coming in as an applicant and getting matched that someone in our enrollment department, that’s mine to get to know them and do the check in terms of what we think is a good fit for them. So there’s a little bit of a overlap in those two teams, obviously, there’s a handoff between enrollment at the match. 

GEIGER: How quickly does a match happen? 

KAISER: That’s a great question. It can be, it can be really varied because we’re doing matching based upon mutual interest and compatibility. We don’t necessarily always get the right child with the right volunteer right away. So sometimes there can be some recruitment involved to make sure if we get a volunteer that comes through that wants to be really active with sports, but we don’t have the right child then we’ll go out and try and recruit the right child. 

KAISER: If we’ve got a child that comes though that has a particular set of needs, and we don’t have a volunteer then we go and we seek out recruiting for that balance. So in an ideal world the matchmaking process can happen in two or three months. Maybe potentially even less, but that’s like a perfect world, that’s just because there’s so many different moving parts like the time between inquire of us getting the information to them, and them returning the information to us, us seeking background check respondents, scheduling for an interview, all of the various steps have this back and forth to them. So there’s just a lot of points in which you can spread out just because you start the process and you got a lot of time and by the time we’re getting to this part in the process there’s maybe a busy couple weeks so we have to move the interview. Ideally on average we’re looking at about three months. Some kids can wait a long time though. The waiting generally tends to happen on the child’s side more than on the volunteer side. 

KAISER: I know that some boys specifically can wait a year or two sometimes before we’ve matched them. 

GEIGER: What kind of events do you guys put on or facilitate for the bigs and littles? And do the matches have to meet at these events or can they meet outside of these events?

KAISER: Yeah so they can meet, depending upon which program, the site-based program only meet at their sites unless they get a waiver to come to our events. The community-based program you don’t have to come to the events that we put on. We try to enrich the experience of our matches. So we do a lot of different things. We’ve dont bowling parties, we’ve done an action city event. We do baseball games in the summer. So we partner with the Eau Claire Express or the Cavaliers and we have kind of a night out at the ballpark where they get a hotdog and stuff like that. 

KAISER: We do a picnic, we do arts and crafts nights. We’ve done yoga classes. We’ve done karate classes. We’ve done snowshoeing at Beaver Creek. We have a committee of volunteers that help to plan big level events. So they solicit feedback from our matches. 

KAISER: When we get suggestions that seem like something that we could get a group of people knowing to, we try and plan those things. We’ve done a zumba night for matches. So I would say that there are maybe three or four really big events that we do each year. The picnics, the action city events, the bowling events are pretty big. I think we had 60 people at our bowl for kids sake events in March. So those are the really big ones. Then the craft nights, the painting nights, the Halloween parties, they’ll get about 20, 30, maybe 40 people at them. 

KAISER: But we’re pretty geographically dispersed. So our organization serves not just Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn but also St. Croix and Pierce County. We have matches in Buffalo County. So geographically we’re a pretty big organization, which means that we try to put events in different communities and hit other populations that maybe don’t get to Eau Claire as often. But because we are headquartered out of Eau Claire I think the vast majority of our match activities happen in Eau Claire 

GEIGER: Do you guys have any events coming up? 

KAISER: So we don’t publicize our match events, but we do have some in the works. There’s a couple of things happening this summer. We do have a lot of events as far as fundraising events are concerned. Our big event is called Bowl for kids sake. When I say event, it’s really like 20 events. We’re in the middle of Bowl for kids. We’ll be in River Falls this coming Friday and Hudson the Friday after. 

KAISER: Then there’s a couple of weeks in Eau Claire at the end of May. Bowl for kids is what’s known as a peer to peer fundraising event. If you’ve ever heard of polar plunge or relay for life or things like that, that’s the sort of activity where businesses, friends, family and teams put together an appeal to their networks. So they reach out to their family and friends and say “Hey, I’m doing this activity, would you be willing to donate to our organization?” and then basically bowl for kids sake events are kind of like the thank you party after they’ve done some fundraising. 

KAISER: Each team on average get about $600 of fundraising. We get maybe 150 teams throughout the event. We raise about a quarter of our annual budget off of that. So right now bowl for kids sake’s goal is to raise just over $200,000 for mentoring. 

OUTRO: This has been Samantha Geiger, Podcast editor for Inside Eau Claire and Drew Kaiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters, thank you for listening to my podcast, catch you next time.