Amy Chionchio has worked in the non-profit sector for half of her life. After successful careers at the Milwaukee Public Museum and United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF), Chionchio joined Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Metro Milwaukee in September 2007 as the president and chief executive officer.
Intelligent, down-to-earth and exceptionally passionate about her work, Chionchio strives to help Milwaukee reach its potential on a daily basis.
For this latest installment of “Milwaukee Talks,” OnMilwaukee.com spoke with Chionchio about her new role, the mission of Big Brothers Big Sisters and what the group still needs in order to reach its goal for Mentoring Month, which ends on Jan. 31.
OnMilwaukee.com: Why is Big Brothers Big Sisters a good fit for you?
Amy Chionchio: Before accepting the position, I thought about this question for a long time. I have 25 years of experience working in non-profits, and (that’s because) I need to work somewhere that I believe in the cause, the mission and the impact. I have been lucky and able to fulfill this need in all of my jobs. I worked in the arts (UPAF) and education (MPM) and there was a great give and take with what we focused on and what the community got back. Moving into the social services with BBBS, it really elevates that whole piece because the kids and families we work with are such a deserving part of the community. Rolling my career into this focus of helping kids reach their potential, wow, I could not ask for better a fit. It is a change, but a natural change, for me to really focus on a part of the community that really needs our help. It gives me the chance to really give back, through a truly awesome organization. I cannot say enough about BBBS, but I know we couldn’t do it without the volunteers.
OMC: You touch upon this in the last question, but please elaborate on why the non-profit world is a good match for you?
AC: I am a person who absolutely has to believe in what I’m doing and believe in the organization I work for. There’s too much of our lives committed to that four-letter word “work,” and there has to be a connection that goes beyond showing up and collecting a paycheck. It is very easy for me to believe in BBBS, and it was easy to believe in the museum as well as the arts. But, I have to say that I feel there is no better cause that the one I’m focusing on today.
OMC: How many kids does BBBS reach out to in Milwaukee?
AC: We serve 2,300 children and their families, which means we have 2,300 volunteers in Milwaukee and Waukesha.
OMC: January is National Mentoring Month and BBBS’s goal was to recruit 100 volunteers. Have you reached that goal?
AC: We are almost halfway there.
OMC: What makes a good mentor?
AC: Someone who can make the commitment to develop a relationship with a child that is positive and supportive. It may sound vague, but purposely so because it depends on the child.
OMC: What is BBBS’s role in the mentor / kid relationship?
AC: We facilitate the match and then we support the match. For example, when we match a child struggling academically, we need a mentor who can help the kid with his or her homework. If we have a child who is very shy, we need a mentor who is suited to help them find their own voice. Those are two different things and require two different mentors.
We try to make sure that every mentor is specifically matched with the right kid. And sometimes all it means is letting them be a kid, showing up regularly to see them, keeping an eye on them. In some cases, that’s it. But it’s usually more than that. It’s about providing experiences. We have children who live in Milwaukee who have never seen Lake Michigan because they might not have a car.
OMC: What kind of a commitment is asked of mentors?
AC: We ask for a year. Statistically, we see the results in the relationships after a year. Of course, we have matches that go on for years and years and years. On a weekly basis, it’s hard to say how many hours a mentor should spend with the child. If forced, I would say about an hour a week, but it’s usually more than that because it’s hard to do anything in an hour. More than anything, we ask for a consistent engagement.
AC: We give them ideas, free tickets, etc. We make monthly calls and send out newsletters the first year to the mentors, child and their parents.
OMC: How are the kid’s parents involved in the relationship? Are they ever resentful that they need someone else to help provide for their child?
AC: A parent has to enroll their child and give consent before we can work on a match.
OMC: What are the demographics of your mentors? Do you have more women than men?
AC: Yes. Females are more likely to volunteer than males. In fact, 65 percent of our mentors are women and 35 percent are men, but our kids are 50/50, so we end up not having enough males to match with the little boys on our waiting list.
OMC: How long is your waiting list?
AC: We have 800 kids on our waiting list. The need in this community is huge.
OMC: What is the racial balance of your kids and mentors?
AC: Fifty percent of the kids we serve are African American; 24 percent are white; and 11 percent are Latino. However, most of our volunteers are white, so we end up with an ethnicity imbalance. Once you get the gender issue under control, trying to match ethnicities narrows the pool even more.
We are most in need of African American male mentors.
OMC: Where did you grow up and where did you attend college?
AC: I grew up in the Milwaukee area. I just got my master’s degree in management from Cardinal Stritch in December. It’s a funny thing when you’re pushing 50 and going to college. That was trip. But it was the best thing I did. It was so helpful and reassuring in my new CEO role. It was really good to step into an organization with both feet on the ground and having that fresh graduate experience.
I have always reported to someone, and I am confident that I am absolutely qualified for this position. Having 25 years of experience under my belt is a good, good thing but to have the latest and greatest management information is amazing.
OMC: What do you like to do when you are not working?
AC: The time I spend with my family and my friends is very valuable. My free time is relationship driven. I am a believer in lifelong learning, and that there’s a lot to learn on the job as well as off the job. When I spend time with the kids in my family, I learn a lot. Let me tell you, if you spend a Saturday afternoon with a 7-year-old, you will learn a lot. You will learn so much about yourself.
OMC: Compared to other cities, is there more or less of a need for mentors in Milwaukee?
AC: That’s a great question. We are so not alone in our need. Milwaukee is not in a unique situation in regards to the number of children out there who need our help. Every city our size has the same issue and struggles: not enough volunteers and a long waiting list. I was just at a national conference and everyone was talking about the same thing: We need to reach a million kids. In Milwaukee, we’re not there yet, but it isn’t just Milwaukee.
OMC: What do you love about Milwaukee?
AC: It’s a town that’s small enough to feel like you’re connected, and it’s big enough where there’s a nice sized loop of people making a difference. There are a lot of people in this town focused on doing good things. Milwaukee is like a big family. It’s a city, but there is still a connection. I love Chicago and I lived in Chicago, but that connection isn’t there because there are too many people. Milwaukee is a great place to get involved. You can really make a difference. BBBS is truly making a difference.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.