Big Sister Michelle Roberts and Little Sister Brooke Finch, 17, have known each other since May 2011. They met through the Big Brothers Big Sisters South Texas (BBBS) Workplace Mentoring program at Rackspace, but have only been able to meet for about one hour once a month during the school year.
Last weekend, Roberts and Finch took the final step to become a BBBS Community-Based Big and Little pair, which gives them the freedom to see each other more frequently and on the weekends. BBBS Case Manager Joel Sanchez read the rules to Roberts, Finch, and Finch’s parents, Marsha and Keith Dickerson, before each party agreed to various conditions such as mutual respect and communication between each other.
“I heard about the program and I knew they only took 25 kids, so I ran out to the car after school that day with the slip and made my dad sign it, and then I ran to turn it in,” Finch said in an interview at her parents’ house.
Roberts, who is an Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) accounting supervisor at Rackspace, said that as soon as she met Finch, she knew she was a good kid – something that Roberts, Sanchez, and the Dickersons repeated numerous times during last weekend's meeting.
“We’ve always had an open-door policy with Brooke. I welcomed the relationship,” Finch's dad said. “Sometimes there are things you don’t want to talk to your parents about, and Michelle fills that void. And as parents, we say things to her, but (for Brooke) to hear it come from an outside party is completely different, so we welcome anything that helps better her as a person.”
Finch loves dance, especially contemporary, and plays multiple sports, including volleyball and basketball. She plans to attend college next fall and hopes to major in kinesiology.
The reasoning for much of Rackspace’s involvement with neighboring Roosevelt High School, nearby Ed White, and five other North East Independent School District schools came about when Rackspace Founder and CEO Graham Weston first decided to move company operations to the former Windsor Park Mall just east of IH-35.
Employees were skeptical, to say the least, Rackspace spokeswoman Cara Nichols said on a recent tour of the campus. There were debates about how to address the high crime rate in the area. The initial idea was to construct a wall around the campus, soon to be known as "the Castle," which would have cost about $1 million.
After considering what a wall would signify to the community, Weston decided that Rackspace would approach the challenge differently.
“We don’t build walls, we build bridges," Weston said at the time. "As we succeed, we will bring this neighborhood up with us."
Weston took the $1 million it would have cost to construct the wall and created the Rackspace Foundation. The Foundation, which is sustained through voluntary employee payroll deductions, has invested approximately $3.7 million in these neighborhood schools since 2009.
The second layer of Rackspace's employee-community involvement is Rack Gives Back, an initiative that heavily focuses on service. Rackers, the inter-company term for employees, design and execute approximately 75 service projects each year that include small groups building new houses for Habitat for Humanity and help with the worldwide Thanksgiving Food Drive, now in its 10th year, that fed 2,300 families last year. The company’s second global campaign, Hour of Code, promotes coding education for students who might not otherwise have access to it.
Employees are paid for 24 hours of volunteer service per year and many will actually pursue opportunities outside of Rackspace. In 2015 alone, Rackers across the globe logged more than 25,000 volunteer hours.
Rackspace doesn’t just focus its school investments on BBBS or coding, though. The Foundation supports nine programs at the eight neighborhood schools, including Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (YOSA); Girlstart, an after-school STEM club and summer STEM camp for elementary school girls; SAY Sí, an after-school arts program for elementary and middle school students; and Gemini Ink, an after-school creative writing program for elementary students.
Workplace Mentoring was one of the initial programs Rackspace organized. The first cohort of Rackspace Bigs and BBBS Littles was created in 2009 for 25 seventh-graders. The seven Littles who completed the program in 2014 boasted a 100% graduation and college attendance rate. The second cohort, the one that included Roberts and Finch, was organized in 2011 for the graduating class of 2017.
Roosevelt High School Principal Melvin Echard said that Rackspace’s partnership with BBBS represents “outside-the-box” thinking when it comes to community involvement.
“The beauty of the program is that it isn’t about metrics,” Echard said in a recent phone interview. “(This) is more of a holistic mentoring program; it looks at the whole child. And it goes beyond what we have to offer (students) in public education.”
Because the Workplace meetings are limited to the Rackspace or Roosevelt campuses, Sunday was the first time the Dickersons and Roberts were able to sit down and really get to know one another.
“We met briefly at Brooke’s volleyball games and dance performances, but I’m glad we finally get to really meet,” Roberts said. “I don’t know why I waited so long to (become a Community member).”
Roberts said that she volunteered in high school and college, but she was too busy after college to commit to long-term projects. However, once she arrived at Rackspace, she was ready to find a way to give back.
“I got an email at work in 2011 asking for BBBS volunteers,” Roberts said. “It kind of fell in my lap and since it took place at work and was just once a month, I thought it was perfect.”
On the monthly visits, the pair would have about an hour to catch up and talk.
“We eat, catch up, talk about school or family or dance or sports,” Roberts said. “And we talk about college and scholarships.”
Finch’s mother, Marsha, said that she’s thankful for the program and what Brooke has been able to learn from her Big.
“It’s hard to stay on the right track with all of these different influences in high school,” she said. “To have someone to talk to outside the family about things is important.”
Finch said that she wished there were even more opportunities for kids at her school to have a Big.
“Other kids were always asking me how they could be in the program. Even in eighth grade people were asking,” Finch said. “It’s a nice way to get out of the school environment. It’s always good to have someone out there to help you out.”
Finch and Roberts decided to move beyond the workplace program in part because Finch plans to apply to colleges and Roberts wants to help her find scholarships and work on applications. But the pair also wants to do fun things together.
“We each have a list that we came up with,” Roberts said.
“I have Six Flags (Fiesta Texas) and a few others on mine,” Finch said to a laugh from her father.
Roberts said that getting to know Finch over the past five years has been important to her, but this weekend she learned something new.
“Hearing Brooke say these things, I had no idea she felt this way about our relationship,” Roberts said. “It made me realize that it did make a difference.”
Top image: Michelle Roberts (left) and Brooke, 17, stand for a photo after becoming part of the Community-Based Big Brothers Big Sisters South Texas program. Photo by Scott Ball.