Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County have officially announced their “Bigs of the Year,” the annual awards that honor amazing Madison-area mentors in the program who really made a difference in their Little’s lives. This year’s awardees – Andres Gomez, the 2021 Big Brother of the Year; Krista Wozniak, the 2021 Big Sister of the Year; and the Danielson Family, the 2021 Big Family of the Year – faced the unique challenge of making a big impact on a child’s life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every year around springtime, Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Dane County reaches out to all of their parents and asked them to submit a nomination of mentors.

Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Sandy Morales

“We actually had a great response from the parents who nominated their Bigs and it was a great way to collect all of these amazing stories,” Sandy Morales, president and CEO of BBBS, tells Madison365. “From there, we were able to work with a committee of volunteers, many of them former Bigs themselves or people who were nominated or recognized as Bigs of the Year, and they reviewed all of the nominations to determine who would best represent that category.

“Although, they are all incredibly amazing. There are so many great ones out there and each one has such a unique relationship with their Littles,” she adds. “But I think the one thing that we learned from all of these relationships is that our mentors aren’t giving up. They are showing up – even during this pandemic year. They are doing everything they can to support their Littles. And our Littles are showing up, too. While we recognize the volunteers, it’s important to give credit to the mentee or the Little.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County’s mission is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth.

“We’re very excited to be recognizing three distinct types of volunteers — The Big Brother, Big Sister and the Big Family of the Year,” Morales says. “I don’t believe that too many people are even aware of the ability to volunteer as a family. I think a lot of people see our program as one-to-one, but by recognizing a family we let people know that you don’t have to do this alone. It’s a great way to form a relationship and know that it’s a group effort.

Big Family of the Year: The Danielsen’s – Nicky, Michael, and their daughter Jada – were matched with Dreyan

The Big Family of the Year is the Danielsen’s – Nicky, Michael, and their daughter Jada – who were matched with Dreyan, who initially was struggling academically and socially in school.

“His schoolwork improved, as did his interactions with his peers. He was able to graduate from his program, but still chooses to attend in order to help other students who also need a little boost. Dreyan learned to take pride in school and see value in himself. And now, he’s leading as he shares those same lessons with his peers,” Big Brothers Big Sisters said in a statement.

Andres Gomez, the 2021 Big Brother of the Year, developed a strong relationship with Little Brother Johnny through two years in the School Friends program. 

“When Johnny entered high school, they transitioned to the Community-Based program, and their connection grew even deeper. Johnny’s parents noticed an improvement in his grades and dedication to school. They saw Johnny make smarter decisions about friends, and who he spent his time with. The evidence was clear–this relationship mattered,”  Big Brothers Big Sisters said in a statement.

Big of the Year: Big Sister Krista Wozniak with Little Sister Mia

Big Sister Krista Wozniak has had a big impact on Little Sister Mia’s life.

“A few years ago, our family went through some unexpected trauma, and I was suddenly filling the role of mother, father, and friend for my children. My 13-year-old daughter, Mia, struggled in the aftermath, and I knew I couldn’t help her alone. I reached out to BBBS, and Mia was quickly matched with Krista. Although Mia was hesitant at first, they grew close quickly, and I felt relieved to have Krista’s support,” said Vanessa, Mia’s mom.

It was a tough and interesting year for Bigs and Littles of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County during the COVID-19 pandemic. In-person activities and fun events were canceled in favor of virtual get-togethers.

“Last year, we had to put a pause on in-person relationships so it did really increase the amount of time that our Littles are waiting to be matched with a mentor,” Morales says. “We did switch to virtual as a way to compensate and give an alternate for our kids who have been waiting a long time. Some have chosen to move into virtual relationships that will transition into in-person when everybody feels comfortable.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters Dane County are always looking for more volunteers, especially male volunteers, and especially men of color.

“We would love to have more families of color, to be honest,” Morales says. “You don’t have to be an individual to volunteer. For families of color in our community, this would be a great way to connect or to serve in that role as a family. They do make such a difference in a young person’s life.”