Levi Hickman, a 13-year-old student at Milwood Magnet School in Kalamazoo, is hesitant to try out for the school band for next year, but you can’t help notice more than a hint of interest on the eighth-grader’s face when Kyle Croes encourages him to do so.
“He’s reading music proficiently, has great range and runs through all of our warm-ups without having to refresh,” says Croes, who gives Hickman weekly trumpet lessons. “He’s got it all down.”
That’s because Croes is more than a music instructor to Hickman. Croes is Levi’s Big Brother, and the pair came together in an unusual way: through Croes’ job at Eaton Corp.
The two are participants in Bigs in Business, a program of Big Brothers Big Sisters, A Community of Caring which serves Kalamazoo and surrounding counties. The Bigs in Business program gives those who don’t have a lot of free time to volunteer the opportunity to be a Big Brother or Big Sister at their workplace. The Bigs in Business program partners with local companies to match up workers with “Littles.” Then twice a month, the Littles visit with their Bigs at the companies where the Bigs work, not only connecting with the Bigs, but receiving valuable exposure to the work world.
Sitting beside Hickman, 14-year-old Nina Herschleb beams at her Big Sister, Kristen Kubicek, a senior pricing analyst at Eaton. Herschleb, a ninth-grader at Loy Norrix High School, and Kubicek talk of their shared interest in creative pursuits, including the glazed globe art piece that they created to donate to the upcoming BBBS Annual Benefit Dinner on June 20 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites.
“I thought it sounded fun to meet someone,” Herschleb says about signing up for Bigs in Business, “somebody who is older than me and just connect and have a friend.”
In 2006, BBBS launched the Bigs in Business pilot program with Eaton, matching the company with Milwood Magnet School, with which it is still partnered. Other companies came on board as well, but when the 2008 recession hit, involvement plummeted. Kubicek, who served as Eaton’s Bigs in Business site coordinator during those years, says Eaton’s commitment to the program never wavered. Eaton not only continued participating, but picked up the tab when funding to bus the kids to its Galesburg facility dissolved.
“A lot of it was pride that we were the pilot program and we were still going — and Eaton is very community-oriented,” Kubicek says. “It’s the employees’ expectation of what the corporation is going to do and also the corporation’s expectation of what the employees will do. It never ever occurred to us to not have the program.”
Today, Bigs in Business has expanded to other Michigan communities including Grand Rapids. Local matches include Stryker Instruments and Kalamazoo Central High School, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Loy Norrix High School, and National Flavors and Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts.
Each July, Eaton Corp. starts recruiting its Bigs. It currently has 15 adult volunteers and has had as many as 25 volunteers. The Littles come to Eaton twice a month to meet with their Bigs. In addition to getting to know their Bigs and learning about their careers, the Littles experience a workplace environment, learning such soft skills as dress code, interaction with co-workers and office behaviors.
Last year Eaton Corp. planned a field trip for its Big-Little pairs to KVCC, where the Bigs and Littles toured the campus and met with KVCC representatives, who explained the types of support in place to help Littles if they become future KVCC students. Kubicek and Croes say many Littles imagine college as “a scary place” — or not even an option for them — and the Bigs hope that the visit showed the Littles that “it doesn’t have to be as terrifying because there are all of these things that (colleges) can do to help,” Kubicek says.
Carmen James, a match support specialist at BBBS in Kalamazoo, who pairs the Bigs and Littles, and Kubicek and Croes all attest to the huge impact Bigs in Business has had, using one word to describe what they see the program instilling in the Littles: confidence. James describes how one Little Sister’s body language before being matched with a Big appeared very defeated. Within four weeks of being with her Big, she carried herself like a different person, she says.
The Bigs also receive much in return, says Croes, who is most rewarded by witnessing his Little’s growth.
“Levi is an incredible young man, and giving him the opportunity to grow and have a promising future, I think, is definitely the most rewarding,” Croes says.
Sometimes, though, Bigs don’t know the impact they have had on a Little until much later. Back in 1994, Kubicek says, she wondered if she was making a difference in her first Little’s life. Then, in 2002, Kubicek’s boss nominated her for Eaton’s Stover Volunteerism Award, and that Little and the Little’s mom wrote a letter in support of Kubicek’s nomination. Her Little wrote about when she and Kubicek rang bells for the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle drive. “Without yelling at me or anything,” the Little wrote, “she helped me think bigger about what we were doing and why we were there, and that my feet really weren’t that cold.”
Both Croes’ and Kubicek’s relationships with their current Littles have evolved into community-based matches, meaning they participate in one-on-one outings and activities outside of the workplace. Croes and Hickman generally get together once a week and often embark on a new experience for Hickman, such as listening to the Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra at the Union Cabaret & Grille. Croes remembers that outing for what Hickman said afterward — words that revealed the experience’s effect on the teen.
“We were driving back to my apartment, and (Hickman) said, ‘I want to take my girlfriend to the Union to listen to jazz.’ I couldn’t believe it,” Croes says. “It was the coolest thing!”