Renee Burks knows what it feels like to be a single mom. Though the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas has been married to her husband Chris for almost two decades, the mom of two understands all too well the struggle of raising two children alone.

“My husband was deployed in 2004, so for 1 1/2 years, I lived the life of a single mom. Nothing could have prepared me for it,” Renee says. “It was very difficult, and during that time, I thought about Big Brothers Big Sisters. My children were too young for the program, but at that moment I really understood how important an organization like that could be.”

Unlike many single-parent families, Renee and her two sons, Addison, now 14, and MacKenzie, 11, were reunited with their father, but Renee says the experience helps her relate to the families she works with through BBBSCA. “It brought a whole new level of admiration for parents going through that process,” she says. “The parents that we work with are in a lot of different situations. For some, it may be because of divorce, others it may be that one parent is incarcerated, there may have been a death in the family, it may be grandparents that are raising their grandchildren…”

The one commonality: Each of these caregivers turns to Big Brothers Big Sisters as a way to find support as a parent and help build better futures for their children.

In recognition of National Mentoring Month, Burks sat with Little Rock Family to dish about her own family life and the ways in which mentoring can impact all children—not only those who come from less-privileged backgrounds.

LRF: How long have you been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters?

RB: I’ve been here for 6 1/2 years. Before, I worked with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I like working where I feel like I’m making a positive impact on the community that I live in. And, to me, you start with kiddos. We’re trying to give them something positive and hopefully keep them on a path to becoming a productive member of the community.

BBBSCA strives to make a difference in children’s lives through mentor relationships. How would you define a mentor?

A mentor is someone who cares about kids, cares about their community and doesn’t mind incorporating that child into their life. The biggest thing is being someone who makes a commitment and sticks to it. One of the issues we really face is that we ask volunteers to commit for at least one year, but sometimes within three months they’re not returning calls or seeing their Little. They really need to understand that this child has already experienced having an adult in their life that has disappointed them. They don’t need that again.

You also have to be open. Some of our children come with experiences that our volunteers have never experienced. Before we match them, we make them very aware of any situations. They have the opportunity to say, “I think that’s more than I can do,” or “Yes, I think I can handle a child that’s going through the juvenile justice system,” or a child who has ADD or whatever it is. They have to realize that the environment the child lives in is going to be very different than where the volunteer lives. Sometimes one of the hardest things is to take a child back to that environment. We always say, “You have to remember that you’re showing them a different way. The longer you stay with them, the more impact you will have.”

What are some of the ways that mentors positively impact children’s lives?

There are some kids that we serve that may just need to build self-esteem or need some direction. One girl had a little bit of a learning disability and did not have any self-confidence. She had very poor grades. She was bullied at school. Her Big Sister brought out her love for art by doing art projects and going to classes together. And her teacher even enrolled her in the school district’s art contest, where she won an award. The thing that really stuck with me was that she had a 3.8 GPA and her self-confidence had improved greatly. The teacher, the parent, everyone knew that it was directly related to that Big Sister. She helped open her up and gave her something to be proud of.

Parents are their children’s first mentors, but they don’t always realize it. How can caregivers strengthen that role?

As parents, sometimes we get so caught up in parenting that we forget our children are watching us in everything we do. Sometimes it’s more about what we do than what we say. I’m not always successful, but I try to be cognizant of that. For example, one of the things I love about my job is that I’m able to find a good balance between work and family. I can show my children by example that work is important, but at the same time, my children are important too.

What family moments do you hold dear?

For us, it’s more about those little moments. It’s being able to be together, supporting one another. Whether we’re going to a Razorback football game or to the kids’ baseball games, we’ve always got family around us.

My kids will tell you, they hate it when they’re in the car with me by themselves, because I take that opportunity to have “teachable moments.” Sometimes those conversations are uncomfortable for them and they have nowhere to go! You have to make those moments happen whenever and wherever you can.

When they’re grown, those car rides may be some of their favorite memories!

I hope so! As a parent, I just have to trust that I’m doing the best I can and hope that it has an impact later on down the road. We tell our mentors all the time that they may never really see the end result of their mentoring relationship. That child is not going to look at you at 8 or 10 or 12 years old and say, “Man, you have changed my life.” They’re not going to realize that until they’re 20-something. We have to remind our Bigs all the time: “You are having an impact whether or not that child says it to you. Don’t get discouraged.” And it’s the same way with parents and their kids.

(Click here to learn more about another Big Brother team!)

3 Ways Kids Can Get Involved

1. Bowl for Kids’ Sake: Teams of bowlers raise money to benefit the nonprofit, then have a blast knocking down pins at Professor Bowl. Last year, Renee’s son MacKenzie formed a team with his friends and raised over $1,200 for the event. This year’s two-day bowl-a-thon will be held Feb. 22 & 23.

2. High School Big Program: Teens ages 16 and up can sign up to mentor elementary-age students through
the Site-Based programs. Bigs spend one-hour a week at Boys & Girls Clubs with their Littles, reading books, playing games or helping with homework.

3. Biking for bigs: In the past, Renee’s children have participated in a fundraising bike ride, hosted by a BBBSCA volunteer. Look for details on how to get involved in the spring.

Learn more about how your family can get involved at