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B'nai B'rith Honors Executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters

June 4, 2009 By:
Daphna Berman, JE Feature
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Marlene Olshan

If it costs $40,000 to treat a patient for a gunshot wound and $30,000 to incarcerate a convict, then the $1,200 it costs to pair an at-risk child with a mentor -- thereby increasing the child's chances of staying in school and away from crime -- is actually a sound financial investment.

That, essentially, is the business model driving the success of Marlene Olshan, chief executive officer of southeastern Pennsylvania's chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, the youth mentoring organization.

"We offer a very compelling business proposition," Olshan, 55, who recently was honored with the B'nai B'rith educator's unit award for humanitarian service, said in an interview. "We give you a return on your investment, and so this is actually a very cost-effective, proven way to strengthen our region."

Olshan assumed the helm of the local Big Brothers Big Sisters in 2001 -- her first foray into the nonprofit world -- and her success has been dizzying. In eight years, the number of children her chapter serves has more than quadrupled -- from 1,000 to 4,300 -- and its annual operating budget has increased from $1 million to $5 million.

The branch, meanwhile, has been named one of the top five BBBS agencies, out of some 400, across the United States.

"Marlene is improving opportunities for young people across the region," Essie Cherkin, president of the B'nai B'rith Educators Unit, said of the committee's decision to extend the award to Olshan. It is given to Jews and non-Jews alike, though Olshan herself is Jewish.

"She has a strong dedication and passion to help, and when we look to give out the humanitarian award, we look for an organization that makes a difference," said Cherkin.

When she started, Olshan -- who worked in the financial-services industry and for retail giants like Macy's -- acknowledged that she knew little about BBBS, or the nonprofit world, for that matter. But since she became CEO, her office has initiated two successful programs that have since been replicated at mentoring agencies across the country.

Two Successful Programs

The first, "Beyond School Walls," brings "littles," as the children are known, for weekly get-togethers at the workplace of their "bigs," an experience, she says, that provides mentoring, but also exposes disadvantaged children to skyscrapers, elevators and a world of employment opportunities.

The second initiative, "Amachi," a Nigerian Ibo word that means "who knows but what God has brought us through this child," reaches out to children who have an incarcerated parent. This demographic is considered especially vulnerable; studies indicate that children of prisoners are six times more likely than other children to be incarcerated at some point.

An estimated 100,000 children are currently defined as "at risk" in Philadelphia, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties, and some 20,000 children in the area have a parent currently incarcerated. The families that contact Big Brothers Big Sisters -- single mothers or grandmothers raising kids, often without a male figure in the house -- are at or below the poverty line.

Some 1,200 children -- two-thirds of them boys -- are on the waiting list, since male volunteers are difficult to recruit.

Olshan's long-term goals include eliminating the waiting list, and ultimately expanding the number of children served to about 10,000.

Olshan is also an executive who has hands-on knowledge of how her agency works. Theresa Comer, a single mother, said that she turned to the organization when her son Mark began exhibiting problem behavior. So Olshan decided to become Mark's "big sister."

"Marlene was such a positive influence," said Comer. "When they first met, he thought she was cool because she loved sports, and when he found out that she was a Sixers fan, it was all the better.

"Mark thinks she's the best. Everything he does now, he needs to call Ms. Marlene to tell her. He has her cell phone and her office number, and they talk very frequently."

The family moved to Orlando, Fla., and on his most recent report card, Mark got all "A"s and "B"s. Though they're no longer paired officially, "Marlene still has influence on him," said Comer. "She is as cool as cool can be. She's just such a good person."

'Social Profit Business'

Mitchell Benson, a board member who's worked closely with Olshan, said that "Marlene is passionate about her work, and she's passionate about helping every kid in the city who needs it. But she also understands what it takes to be successful. She runs [BBBS] like one does a for-profit organization."

Indeed, Olshan, who considers herself a cultural as opposed to a observant Jew, insisted that the term "nonprofit" is actually misleading.

"We're in the social profit business," she explained. "We strengthen the social fabric of this region.

"I came in saying, 'We have a business to run.' We are saving kids' lives, changing their direction, keeping them out of jail and keeping them in school.

"What we do isn't nice," she says. "It's necessary."

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