This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 25, 2008 - "Ma'am, are they taking applications in there?" the gentleman called from his white pickup Monday afternoon at the corner of Olive and Grand. "I've been wanting to do that.''
A half block down Olive, he made a wide U-ie to snag a parking spot. Then he sprinted over to the Big Brothers Big Sisters Building at 501 North Grand, an office space so new that painters' drop cloths were still in the corner by the front door, and the neon signage outside was still being tested for the official lighting at 8:30 that night, just in time to welcome delegates to the national Big Brothers Big Sisters conference being held in St. Louis this week.
Fact is, new "Bigs" haven't needed to see the organization's name in neon lights to start volunteering to help the region's "Littles,'' according to Becky James-Hatter, president and CEO of the organization, which started moving into the former Woolworth's building two weeks ago.
"We got our first call from a man on Friday. He saw our sign and asked, 'Can I join?' '' she said, beaming.
Though James-Hatter is smiling a lot these days over her group's spacious new headquarters, she says the true measure of success will be adding volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, an organization that has served St. Louis since 1914.
Increased visibility was the driving force for choosing this location, next to the Fabulous Fox Theatre, at what may have once been the busiest intersection of the city. And the irony isn't lost on anyone that during the 1960s, civil rights demonstrations were once held at the lunch counter in this building, she points out.
"Under the banner of Big Brothers Big Sisters, this is now a place where all races can come together with a great deal of love and acceptance -- I get emotional,'' she said.
In this prominent location, James-Hatter hopes to match hundreds -- make that thousands -- of "Littles" with "Bigs.'' Her goal is to increase the program's 2,500 current matches to 10,000 -- still a drop in the bucket when compared to the estimated 100,000 youngsters in Eastern Missouri who would benefit from mentoring, she said.
The 60,000-square-foot building, which has been completely renovated from basement to rooftop, is owned by developer McCormack Baron Salazar Inc. Big Brothers has an option to buy its part of the building -- about 24,000 square feet -- in seven years. The building will also house the Kranzberg Art Center, where two theaters and the Craft Alliance will share space. Plans are to make meeting rooms -- and a rooftop garden space -- available to other community groups.
The Big Brothers organization wants to develop an exhibit for the lobby that will note the historic importance of the building during the Civil Rights movement, James-Hatter said. The project would include oral histories from a diverse cross-section of St. Louisans: those who recall being denied service at the lunch counter and the slap in the face that was segregation, as well as those who have happy memories of going to the dime store to buy their first gold fish.
For now, the legacy is marked by a simple message on the wall that is visible from the window facing Olive:
"During the turbulent 1960s this building was a site of historic pickets and protests. Today, Big Brothers Big Sisters has transformed it into a place that welcomes, embraces and serves boys, girls, men and women of all ages.''
About Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri
- The agency is the oldest and largest one-to-one mentoring organization in Missouri; the agency serves St. Louis City and St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson, Cape Girardeau and Scott counties.
- Youths ages 5 to 17 are served through two core programs: the community-based mentoring organization and the school/site-based program. Special attention is given to children attending under-performing schools and those whose parents are incarcerated.
- There are currently 2,500 "matches.''
- Volunteers commit to at least one year of mentoring, with the average match staying together 3 years
- For more information, call 314-361-5900 or visit www.bbbsemo.org