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Big Brothers Big Sisters Of Palm Beach And Martin Counties Celebrates 30 Years Of Changing Lives

When Bill Bee came to the Treasure Coast in January 2004, he was on a mission. It wasn’t a New Year’s Resolution to change the course of his life, but rather a family obligation that set a series of events in motion, changing the course of thousands of lives. Bee, who had spent nearly 30 years as a professional on Wall Street, came to Martin County to help his dad. His father was suffering from a debilitating illness and was no longer able to live independently. So, Bee’s siblings charged him with the responsibility of transitioning their father into nursing home care. But something happened while Bee was aiding his father, and the financial wizard never made it back to Wall Street. Instead, he took the reins of a floundering non-profit organization, restructured it, guided it to fiscal stability, and then helped it to grow into a powerful non-profit that has had an influence on many children in Martin and Palm Beach counties. But the story actually begins a few years before Bee entered from stage left.

In 1986, a group of Stuart residents noticed that there were a lot of single parents in the community whose children would be enriched by another positive role model. The group set out to create a local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national organization created in 1904 with the goal of providing positive mentoring relationships between adult volunteers and children in need of good guidance.

It’s no secret that mentoring has a positive effect on human beings of all ages. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health released a study in 2013 that found that children and teens with adult mentors are “significantly more confident in their academic abilities and considerably less likely to display behavioral problems.” The local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters was dedicated to the mission, but like most non-profit organizations in the area, keeping an organization running smoothly, staffed optimally and financially secure is a bit like walking a tightrope over the center of the ocean—even when the seas are calm, it’s a big challenge. When Thea Lacey became the board of directors’ president in 2004, she asked Bee’s brother, Ed Bee, for advice. Since his older brother, a financial expert, was in Florida on an extended visit to help their dad get settled in, Ed Bee figured his brother had some extra time on his hands. Ed Bee suggested his brother sit in on a couple of Big Brothers Big Sisters board meetings to assist in turning the organization around. He never made it back to Wall Street, and he hasn’t regretted the decision (or his brother’s nudge of fate) since.

Not only did Bee’s leadership help turn the organization around after his arrival in 2004, but he was even honored as the CEO of the Year at Big Brothers Big Sisters’ National Conference in 2006, with Martin County’s organization being honored as the Runner Up Agency of the Year. And while these accomplishments occurred under Bee’s direction, he credits the board, staff and community for the achievement. “That award spoke volumes to the time and philanthropy of our community,” Bee says. “People are willing to invest in a worthy project, and helping to change the life of a child is a very worthy project.”

Having just celebrated its 30th anniversary, Big Brothers Big Sisters has made a positive impact on thousands of lives in Martin County and has expanded its service area to include Palm Beach County. The children in the program range from ages 6 to 18, but the focus typically centers on elementary school children because statistically, children who are mentored during their early, more formative years are not only more likely to accept mentoring, but they are more successful and show greater academic and social results. Bee says that the organization has never had to solicit children to participate; indeed, there is always a waiting list of children in need of mentors. Bee says that technology and the changing face of a “typical” child have caused the organization itself to evolve its concept of a viable volunteer mentor.

“A typical volunteer is often younger than in the past,” Bee says. “It can be high school-aged students who truly care about being a positive part of the community. We worked with a team of football players from Dwyer High School in Palm Beach County, and they were a great group of mentors. It was also great for the children being mentored because kids love being with kids who are older.”

Bill Bee, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Palm Beach and Martin counties.

Though, Bee insists that there will always be a need for adult volunteers in a variety of mentoring capacities. The face of the program itself is also always evolving to meet the current needs of the population it serves. “The programs need to reflect what society’s needs and demands are,” Bee says. “We had a career skills program in Stuart for eighth graders, and I hope to institute one for high school students in Palm Beach during this coming year. With the renaissance of the infrastructure, it might be concurrent with what these students need.”

That’s why Big Brothers Big Sisters of Palm Beach and Martin Counties chose to partner with First Tee, another highly successful program in Stuart that focuses on golf. Not only are children getting academic assistance, but core values are taught, like honesty, fidelity and integrity. Bee says the First Tee program develops focus, self-confidence and attention, and because of its success, Big Brothers Big Sisters will be starting a tennis counterpart, First Serve, in the spring. 

Bee contends that, while mentoring groups and trends are all the rage now in the world of non-profits and children’s organizations, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Palm Beach and Martin Counties is ahead of the curve for a few reasons. Not only does Big Brothers Big Sisters have an intensive interviewing process and background screening for each and every potential volunteer, but it also understands that the mission that drives them is ever-changing.

“We don’t have mission drift,” he says. “It’s more mission enhancement or mission evolution.”  This kind of forward-thinking may be part of why the organization is still going strong 30 years after its inception in an area where the very population of potential volunteers is transient and ever-shifting.

Bee also notes that Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteers are typically in the game for the long haul. He gives the example of the popularity of “done in a day” projects that season the community’s volunteer landscape saying that, while there is some merit in them, there is something valuable about a volunteer who takes the time to change a child’s perspective and life by being there over and over again, not just for a day. The proof of how much it means to the “littles” is in the pudding, since sometimes former “littles” come back either locally or in another geographic area to volunteer as “bigs.” Bee says there are also remarkable mentors who service the children and the community in a standout fashion. Melvin Lazerick, a 99-year-old mentor, for example, recently addressed the board of directors and shared the stories of his “littles,” one of whom is 89 and another in his late 60s. Although both “littles” were products of foster homes, they are still in touch with Lazerick regularly, and both are positive contributors to society—something they attribute to the positive role-modeling they received from their “big.”

For Bee, now 67, the 30th anniversary was a wonderful milestone for the organization, but it was also a cue for him to step back and take a little time for his own family, mentoring his 9-year-old son. The iconic CEO will be stepping down from the organization in the spring, but he won’t be far away, as the board has asked him to help maintain the culture and add a new vision.

Of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Palm Beach and Martin Counties, Bee says, “We are an emotionally charged, positive, professional, non-sterile experience here, and I’ve had a ball doing it for 13 years. I spent 27 years on Wall Street, but I have had as much excitement and challenge on different levels as I had on Wall Street. The volumes of capital may be wildly disparate, but the reward is going from where no children would have been served to being able to profoundly affect more than 7,000 that may not have been served if both Martin and Palm Beach Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations were left to dissolve. It really does take a village to build a child, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. … If you can take some of your skill set and help change and improve the life of a child—well, that’s a pretty nice footprint to leave.”

Check out more photos from the organization below: 

(Photos submitted by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Palm Beacn and Martin Counties)