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VOL. 131 | NO. 120 | Thursday, June 16, 2016

New Big Brothers Big Sisters Leader Has Big Goals for Little Memphians

By Don Wade

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Early in her life, Rychetta Watkins learned there is more than one way to help people. Next week, she will start work as executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South Inc.

A Ph.D. who had a career in academia before committing to work in the nonprofit sector, she most recently served as project coordinator for the city of Memphis’ AmeriCorps VISTA Program.

Rychetta Watkins, new executive director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South Inc., returned to the city to teach at Rhodes College, but she knew she needed to be in the nonprofit world full-time.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But her window into the world of helping others began when she was so small that she needed a stepstool to reach the kitchen counter.

“One of my earliest memories was making tuna salad to take to the sick and shut-ins with my mom’s missionary society at Greater Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and one of the other missionary ladies teaching me how to peel eggs,” Watkins said. “Service has always been a part of my life.”

She also recalls the gratitude from people on the receiving end of this help. It wasn’t so much what they said, but the expressions on their faces.

So Watkins understands reaching people is personal, that relationships and simple human kindnesses can trump funding and the best of administrative plans. But ideally, she will help bring all those things together – along with a skill for marketing – as she aims to move Big Brothers Big Sisters forward in a very competitive and fast-changing nonprofit culture.

“She’s got the charisma and charm and intellect so that in three minutes she can deliver the message of what Big Brothers Big Sisters is and what the vision is,” said Russ Wigginton, vice president of College Relations at Rhodes College, where Watkins once taught. “She brings a dynamism that’s important for a high-profile nonprofit today.”

Watkins, 43, graduated White Station High School and chose Washington University in St. Louis for her undergraduate studies because the school had an emphasis on community service. While in St. Louis, she also got her first taste of mentoring during a stint working for Girls Inc.

She went on to the University of Illinois, where she earned her doctorate in English, and then took a teaching position at William Jewell College in Kansas City. She returned to Memphis to teach at Rhodes. While she enjoyed what she was doing, she was never certain it was what she should be doing.

Watkins begin considering a transition, with Wigginton’s help.

“Russ helped me to think about the things I loved about being an academic – the research, the writing, the opportunity to have a voice and articulate issues,” she said. “Also, I drew on the research I did. I researched social movements, I researched black power and yellow power during the 1960s.”

Wigginton, who himself served on the Big Brothers Big Sisters board from 2004-2012, believed she made the right call coming back home.

“It was pretty clear she had a deep passion for making Memphis better,” he said.

The challenges here are, of course, as large as they’ve ever been. A record-setting rate for homicides in the city has only magnified that truth.

“Violence doesn’t have just one root,” Watkins said. “We can point to poverty and all of its symptoms and causes. Lack of education, lack of opportunity, and one of those causes is young people that don’t feel connected to adults who are equipped to expose them to a different path where they might have more choices.”

As of Jan. 31 this year, Big Brother Big Sisters Mid-South had 407 total matches between “Bigs” and “Littles.” The Littles range in age from 6 to 18 and most are African-American; African-American women make up the largest category of Bigs.

In picking up where longtime executive director Adrienne Bailey left off (she retired in August of 2015), Watkins hopes to increase matches to 600 and she emphasizes that neither race nor age disqualifies someone from being a volunteer in the program.

“A mature adult willing to be consistent and supportive and invest themselves in the life of a child,” she said of the core requirements. “You can be a successful mentor at 24 if you have those qualities, and you can be an effective mentor at 70.”

Watkins says the organization also needs to utilize all media platforms to get its story out to the public, including the fact that research shows mentoring has health benefits for the mentor and that there is a profound economic impact when young people finish high school and enter adulthood on an upward trajectory.

“Whether it’s the military, two-year college, four-year college, trade school, if we can walk alongside that young person it has a benefit for the larger community,” she said. “I think $600,000 is the net positive economic impact of a person with a high school degree and then it’s like $1.4 million for someone with a college degree.

“It’s more important and broader than just keeping a young person out of trouble,” Watkins continued. “We don’t want to stay stuck in that deficit model, that we’re just coming alongside people who have come from broken families. That’s not our role.

“Our role is to step up and support an in-tact family; it might not have two parents at home, but that’s still a family. Our role is to support that child within a family and help them achieve their fullest possible lives.”

For more information about the organization, including the 19th Annual SportsBall Black Tie and Tennis Gala to be held Saturday, July 23, Minglewood Hall, and for which corporate sponsorships and tickets are still available, visit http://www.msmentor.org/.

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