Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO enables youth to reflect, grow and prosper

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Elizabeth Martinez of Big Brothers Big Sisters is CEO of the Year 2021 in the small nonprofit category.

Elizabeth Martinez will tell you, COVID-19 or not, “you can’t quarantine relationships.”

That sentiment has been put to the test over the past two years as the agency she leads suddenly had to help young people overcome the devastating impacts of the pandemic while they stared the racial justice movement square in the eye.

Many of the youth served by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio come from low opportunity communities, and they already were presented with challenges tied to the social determinants of health before the health crisis. Those are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes like access to quality education, housing stability and access to health resources and care. Then, the pandemic decided to do a pile-on. Education was disrupted, mothers and fathers lost jobs and children became isolated. The distress was exacerbated by the racial unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

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Every challenge, though, affords the chance to unearth an opportunity. Martinez quickly went to work to ensure the organization would have the protocols and structure in place to lift and support the next generation of leaders, health crisis or not.

She was named Columbus CEO's CEO of the Year 2021 in the small nonprofit category.

“Strong and meaningful relationships are key in helping us charter through the most difficult times in our lives,” Martinez says.

Martinez joined the agency in 2003 and was elevated to the top post in 2016. Her long tenure at the nonprofit has been “inspired by the power, promise and potential of young people.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters is creating safe spaces

Big Brothers Big Sisters serves area youth through its core one-to-one mentoring program, through leadership development programs at Camp Oty’Okwa in the Hocking Hills and as a capacity builder for other mentoring organizations through MENTOR Central Ohio.

During 2020,  adult volunteers known as “Bigs” and enrolled youth known as “Littles” maintained their relationships virtually. Uncertainty about COVID-19 and the racial injustice made this support system more urgent and important. The nonprofit quickly activated its capacity building arm to deploy training for mentors so they could create the kind of safe spaces where young people felt comfortable having conversations about how they were processing information that was constantly changing and often disturbing.

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“Kids have been really challenged with the information they’ve been exposed to and the emotions that come with that,” Martinez says. “Having a safe space to unpack that has been incredibly important over these past two years.”

Bigs and Littles have started to meet in person again, with masks recommended, and virtual connections can continue to provide flexibility in how people meet.

As for Camp Oty’Okwa, Martinez and her team made the difficult decision to offer a virtual camp experience in 2020. But, realizing the value of in-person relationships, she formed an ad-hoc committee made of experts in law, education and health to develop protocols to reopen the year-round operation in 2021. “Kids were really eager to get together with their peers,” Martinez says.

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Martinez also empowered the capacity-building arm of the organization to offer virtual resources during what was a time of great need. Internally, she created a culture of safety needed to normalize conversations around personal well-being. Martinez fostered an environment of open dialogue that supported her team as they continued to be of service to the community.

Matt Kramer, a partner at KPMG in Columbus, who is a Big Brothers Big Sisters board member and past board chair, describes Martinez as a calm, strong leader during a very disruptive time.

“She was unrattled and really focused on understanding what was coming at us and how to systematically think through what the appropriate response would be,” Kramer says.

Going forward, Martinez wants to use coalition building and community partnerships to leverage mentoring to support young people. “The path forward to helping young people is beyond any one organization,” she says.

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Elizabeth Martinez

President and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio

In role since: 2016

Age: 46

Education: B.A. in psychology, Ohio Christian University

Community involvement: Board of directors, Franklin County Children Services and the Human Service Chamber. Registered corporate coach with the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches.