Amy Kuchta describes herself as “focused, maybe a little intense,” but she has to be. The 46-year-old oversees Big Brothers Big Sisters: A Community of Caring, the largest agency of its kind in Michigan, serving four counties — Kalamazoo, Allegan, Calhoun and Van Buren — and employing 23 additional full-time staff members.
This year the agency expects to serve more than 1,100 kids by pairing them with adult mentors, says Kuchta. But Kuchta doesn’t just run the organization and manage the staff. She and her 15-year-old daughter, Laryn, serve as a “Big Family” to a 13-year-old girl named Chloe.
“I want us to be the best agency in the country,” Kuchta says, “by making sure we’re providing the highest quality of services, serving as many kids as we can, making sure our matches are lasting and providing impact on kids.”
How did you get where you are today?
I graduated from college with a history degree and I went to grad school to get a Ph.D. because I wanted to be a history professor. During the day, to make a living, I was working at a treatment center for kids. I really enjoyed that; hated grad school. I decided I was not an academic and needed to be working with kids.
We moved to Indiana, where I worked doing investigations for the child welfare department in Bloomington and became the county supervisor for investigations for a few years. We moved here in 2004, and I stayed home with my daughter. When I decided to go back to work, BBBS had a part-time job doing enrollment interviews, and I thought, “Perfect! I can use my interviewing skills but for something a little more proactive and positive than child welfare,” which tends to be stressful.
I started working here in 2005, and even though I swore I’d never supervise people again, a program director position came open about nine months later. I did that until 2009, when I went to work for Communities in Schools. I came back (to BBBS) in 2012 as program director again and was hired as the executive director in spring of 2013.
What do people say to you when you tell them what you do?
First, they think we’re the Boys & Girls Club, so I correct them (she laughs).
I get a lot of questions. There’s a very common misperception that we serve “bad” kids. I don’t think there are any bad kids. The kids we serve are just kids who have a need for an additional role model. The word “additional” is important because sometimes some other BBBS agencies will say, “No one cares about this kid, and he or she needs a mentor,” which is not very complimentary to the parent or guardian who has signed their child up for the program because they see that their child can use additional support.
I try to help the community understand that these are not bad kids, (that) they don’t come from homes where no one cares about them. It’s really the opposite.
When you were a kid, what did you want to grow up to be?
It’s funny. I actually I thought I’d be a Supreme Court justice or President of the United States, which is pretty obnoxious.
What influenced you most in your life?
My dad died when I was 8, and my mom really wasn’t able to parent effectively. When I was 13, I was removed from my home and ended up growing up in a group home situation until I graduated from high school. There were a number of people along the way who stepped forward and helped me believe in myself when I didn’t believe in myself. I know, looking back, there are about five or six people who are the reason that I am where I am today. Without them, I don’t’ know where I’d be.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
There are really two equal challenges. The first is finding mentors, especially male mentors. Women are much more likely to volunteer, so it’s trying to find men who have the time to come forward and mentor a young boy.
And then, of course, being a nonprofit, it’s a constant effort to make sure we have sustainable funding so we can keep the program running at the quality that we have it.
How have you approached this challenge?
People don’t have as much discretionary time so we’ve expanded some of our models so there’s still one-to-one mentoring, but it occurs in different places. We have a number of Bigs in Business programs, where children are mentored on site at a business, which I love because it removes all the barriers for people who would like to volunteer. We bring the kids to the workplace, and, in addition to having a mentor, the kids are exposed to the workplace, which exposes them to and provides them with those soft skills they need. They are able to see how people dress at work, how they interact and all the different careers that encompass the business they might be at. It really expands their view of what’s possible in terms of careers.
What do you like the most about what you do?
I like seeing the matches together — seeing the chemistry and their relationships. I love that we’re constantly putting caring people into kids’ lives and how excited kids get when they are matched. At match meetings — when you introduce the Big to the Little — the kids are super-excited, like it’s Christmas, and the Bigs are excited and the parents are excited. It’s neat to have all that positive energy.
Can volunteers really make a difference in a kid’s life in a few hours a month?
They can, but it takes time. Our staff works with volunteers to help them stay engaged and coach them for success while helping them understand that it takes time. A lot of it is about planting seeds for the future.