Karen Mathis, a lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association, has been named president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Mathis, currently on a one-year assignment as the executive director for the Central European and Eurasian Initiative Institute (CEELI) in Prague, will succeed Judy Vredenburgh, who had led BBBS for the past 11 years. Vredenburgh announced in the fall that she would step down this summer. She will continue to lead BBBS until Mathis joins the organization Sept. 15.
BBBS is the largest youth mentoring organization in the United States and provides more than 260,000 mentors for a like number of children, more than twice the number served five years ago.
“She’s fabulous,” Vicki Wagner, executive director and CEO of the National Network for Youth, said about Mathis. “She really cares about disconnected kids.”
Wagner said that under Mathis’s leadership, the ABA had become much more attuned to the needs of runaway, homeless and disconnected kids, resulting in a partnership with the bar that led to more street law clinics, among other things.
Vredenburgh, a former retail executive, has focused on upgrading the infrastructure of the organization to allow it to serve more youths and serve them better. Under her leadership, BBBS has upgraded its training for mentors and established new systems to monitor how well the mentors are serving youths, both in number and quality of visits.
Although she had once set a goal of having 1 million mentors, Vredenburgh said in a recent interview that she underestimated how much it cost to train and supervise each big/little pair properly. She estimated the cost at about $1,200 per match, and said that expanding to 1 million mentors would carry an annual cost of nearly $1 billion.
The national Big Brothers Big Sisters of America organization provides support and funding for nearly 400 affiliates. Under Vredenburgh, the network’s overall revenues grew from $171 million in 1999 to $292 million in 2008.
Mathis takes over BBBS as President Barack Obama plans to cut a major funding stream for the organization, $47 million in federal money for school-based mentoring. Grant recipients have included numerous Big Brothers Big Sisters of America affiliates.
Mathis has been a partner of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney and Carpenter, a multi-state diversified law firm based in Morristown, N.J., with 230 practicing attorneys. She has extensive experience in partnering with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice and has addressed multi-national audiences. She has worked with all five branches of the U.S. military and lobbied successfully on behalf of service men and women.
Mathis, a University of Denver graduate who received her law degree from the University of Colorado Law School, has been honored with several honorary degrees and presented other awards by groups including the National Network for Youth.
She is scheduled to address Big Brothers Big Sisters of America at its National Conference in Miami on June 17.