The boy sitting across from Micheal Lawrence was quiet and stoic, hardened in a way that 13-year-olds shouldn’t be.
The child had fled from Topeka to Kansas City, Kan., where he was picked up by police and sent to a state-run home for runaways where Lawrence worked as a counselor after college.
When Lawrence told the boy he might not return to his family, the child had only one question: Could he still see his Big Brother?
“I just remember having a moment of inspiration,” said Lawrence, CEO of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City nonprofit. “This kid was really impacted by this person.”
That simple moment in 1992 — when a lost child asked for his mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program — first inspired Lawrence to apply for a job at the organization.
Last week, Lawrence celebrated his 25th year — his 10th as CEO — with the Kansas City nonprofit that matches youth with mentors to create relationships that are intended to extend through high school but often last a lifetime.
Under his watch, the organization has become the fastest-growing Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in the country. The Kansas City chapter has won the national Big Brothers Big Sisters of America Agency of the Year Award three times. The nonprofit’s board of directors and its work environment have also earned accolades.
Lawrence’s passion for work has become entwined with his personal life.
His colleagues like to tease that he was “born in the conference room.” He served as a case manager, special events coordinator and program director before becoming chief executive officer and has a depth of knowledge that is a welcomed resource in the building, said Erica Ostroski, director of special events. He fell in love with his wife, Tina, when the pair worked together at the organization in the 1990s.
“You could always tell he had a passion for it,” said Randy Hudlin, who met Lawrence in 1994 when Hudlin applied to be a mentor in the program. “He just loved and believed in the organization. I would have been shocked if he had ever at any point left Big Brothers Big Sisters.”
The first in his family to graduate from college after growing up in the rural town of Butler, Mo., Lawrence will tell you that early experiences as a Big Brothers Big Sisters case manager helped him understand the importance of investing time and energy in developing the bond between child and mentor.
And it’s the quality of the program’s matches that have fueled the Kansas City nonprofit’s success, Hudlin said.
Hudlin watched his little brother, Blaine Harris, grow from a hyperactive kid who was excited to plan their activities together to a strong, thoughtful teenager who eventually served in the United States military and became a Big Brother himself.
The pair have remained close and continue to help the BBBS Greater Kansas City organization with fundraising and recruitment.
Boys living in homes with single mothers, as Harris did, still dominate the program’s 500-person waiting list. And while recruiting enough single men to meet demand is always a challenge, part of the Kansas City chapter’s success has been attributed to Lawrence’s decision to devote significant resources to meet that end.
As a new CEO, Lawrence advocated for a rebranding to target millennials, particularly men, who make up roughly 80 percent of the organization’s volunteer base.
He had already tapped Scott Cruce, formerly a producer for Jason Whitlock’s Sports Radio 810 and 610 Sports shows, to bring more millennial men to the program as director of recruitment.
“We had this need, and all of our marketing materials would be in pink and purple and puppy dogs and rainbows and stuff like that,” Cruce said. “And Micheal was asking the question, ‘If we really need men, why aren’t we trying to do a few things that would be more appealing to guys?’ ”
Cruce helped bring celebrity faces such as the Chiefs’ Eric Berry and the Royals’ Eric Hosmer to the program. Today, the website is a cool mix of animation, video and photographs. The organization moved into a hip, loft-style space in the Crossroads Arts District, complete with a built-in theater, a large workshop space and kids room that mentors and families can access during events, activities and meetings.
In the 10 years since Lawrence took the helm, the number of children the organization has been able to serve has increased by 80 percent. Roughly 1,300 kids are now involved in the program.
But the branding and work environment that have evolved under Lawrence aren’t attractive just for program participants; they’re tools for attracting talent to the organization. Much of the top leadership has worked for the organization for more than a decade. Four of the organization’s full-time employees were involved in the program as youths.
“He runs us like a business, and you feel like you are at a legit organization,” Cruce said. “It’s not a charity rubbing two nickels together.”
In a suite in the Corrigan Station Building last week, Lawrence spoke at a fundraiser committee meeting for the Rise Rooftop Crawl, a big party held on the top of several Crossroads buildings that will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters.
At the gathering, Lawrence announced the news: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City had once again reached the Gold Standard given to successful chapters. It has also been nominated for the Agency of the Year award.
In this room, the fierce loyalty that the program inspires is on display. Half of the sixteen committee members have been “Bigs” in the program, either in Kansas City or elsewhere. It’s not unusual for Lawrence to approach a community member to be involved with the organization and learn that he or she had participated in it elsewhere.
The community’s commitment to the nonprofit has allowed him to focus on ways to improve it, Lawrence said. Big Brothers Big Sisters is expanding a program to support youth after they graduate from high school and has plans to strengthen its alumni network. It continues to invest in its case managers, the people “building lasting friendships.” It’s this last part that Lawrence speaks the most passionately about.
He talks at length about Jesse, a high school junior whom he has mentored with his wife since the boy was 9. He’ll tell you he disliked that first “depressing” job as a counselor to runaways, always meeting “kids running away from ugly things.” The Big Brothers Big Sisters program has felt special from the get-go.
“That was such a big shift to move to something that was energizing and exciting,” Lawrence said. “You become a part of a family and a friendship that you created.”