Susan Rolston will retire as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County as of June 27.
LARGO – Susan Rolston isn’t artistic, but feels that her job as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County has been like a conductor of an orchestra.
“Even though I’ve been a strong leader – some would say too strong – really, the work is done by a very talented and dedicated employee base,” she said. “The music comes from the hands of the performers.”
However, Rolston has helped orchestrate the agency’s growth. When she joined in March 2001, Big Brothers Big Sisters was serving 400 children per year with a budget of $500,000, mostly derived from United Way and governmental funds.
It now helps more than 1,500 children living in adversity per year. Its budget has increased to $2.5 million, 40 percent of which is from private donations. The organization is led by a strong leadership team and is recognized as a high quality, well-managed agency, Rolston said.
“To me, it’s a good time to step away,” she explained. “Retirement is all about timing.”
Rolston’s retirement will be effective June 27. Her 30-year career-serving children started when she began volunteering at her daughters’ school, Tarpon Springs Elementary, as a stay-at-home mom. Rolston helped the school develop partnerships with local businesses and the chamber of commerce, work that caught the attention of the superintendent of schools, the late Scott Rose.
“He offered me a consultant’s job to replicate that work in other schools,” Rolston explained.
Rolston became the director of community involvement for Pinellas County Schools, responsible for the volunteer programs and “all non-financial community engagement” for the county’s schools, she said. She served as an administrator for almost 17 years.
One of her last assignments with the school system changed her perspective. Rolston partnered with an assistant superintendent who had been given oversight of the county’s 29 poorest elementary schools. Rolston was charged with bringing community resources into those schools, schools that didn’t have natural parental involvement like more affluent schools did, she explained.
“That experience forced me to open my eyes to the impact of poverty in children – things I never knew, things I never witnessed,” Rolston said.
She didn’t know that children went to school hungry and without proper clothes or shoes.
“During that period of time in the school system, the revelation of the impact of poverty on kids was profound on me,” she said.
The experience was the beginning of her transition to the nonprofit sector.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but it was enough of the education for me that said there was something else for me to do,” she said.
Leading a nonprofit
While Rolston was still questioning her role as a school bureaucrat, Tom Esslinger, director of Pinellas’ Big Brothers Big Sisters for 22 years, died in October 2000 at age 67. He had been planning to retire from the agency in January. Rolston read his obituary in the newspaper and found herself intrigued by his life’s work.
“I remember the feeling that, that’s sweet work to impact the lives of children up close and personal, rather than as a bureaucratic, administrative level in the school system,” she said.
A board member on the search committee for the agency’s next director heard her express that sentiment and told her to submit her résumé.
“The rest is history,” Rolston said. “Most people don’t resign government jobs. It was a risk that I took to follow my heart to serve a small number of children in a more impactful way.”
Still, she quickly realized that she wasn’t as prepared as she thought. Rolston had a bachelor’s degree in business management, but said it wasn’t enough to do the job appropriately, to her standards at least.
“I came to run a mentoring program for children in need, and I wasn’t prepared that I was going to come here to run a business,” she said. “So I ran – I didn’t walk – to USF graduate program for master’s of public administration and began taking courses that would help me to understand this job.”
Her first class was about the financial management of nonprofits. One of her goals has been to “diversify and deepen revenue streams” for Big Brothers Big Sisters, making it more financially stable and less dependent on volatile governmental funding.
At its roots, the nonprofit is a more business-minded social service, providing evidence-based programming for children it serves. The one-to-one match between an adult “Big” and the child, called a “Little,” creates a mentoring relationship that is proven to have an impact on breaking generational poverty.
“What I take with me as a legacy is that we did what we said we would do, and children’s lives have been changed for the better and in many cases forever,” she said.
Rolston describes herself as a strong, “action-packed CEO,” one who tries to build a consensus, but is driven to take action.
“I’m passionate about the mission … which makes me set very high goals and expectations for everyone around me. But always for myself first, always,” she said. “I’m willing to work hard, but I do expect others to do the same.”
She is quick to give credit to the organization’s most valuable assets: its staff.
“I’ve learned that my job is to make this a work environment that people respect and can depend on; that’s the only way we do our work,” she said.
Thirteen years ago, she would have said that running an organization as a woman made a difference.
“But I don’t feel that way now. Especially in the nonprofit sector, I don’t believe there is gender bias at the executive level,” she said.
Building a better future
One of Rolston’s more satisfying accomplishments is leaving the organization with programs and a scholarship endowment to help Littles as they turn 18, graduate high school and conclude their relationship with their Big. The nonprofit has developed financial literacy and college financial aid workshops and school-to-work programs such as visits to local colleges that help Littles envision themselves pursuing a satisfying career.
“We’re helping them take the blinders off to a life with possibilities and opportunities,” Rolston said. “The force that’s needed to break generational poverty is significant. And I think Big Brothers Big Sisters is really starting, in a small way, to break that pattern, to have our children maybe have an opportunity for a different life than the ones that they’ve seen.”
Rolston was a Big to an elementary school student named Morgan, paired with him because she always was “a little bit of a tomgirl.” When he was older, she and her husband Jim became a Big Couple to Morgan.
“He struggled, but we kept in touch,” she said. “His life indirectly will be changed because of Big Brothers Big Sisters.”
One of the frustrating challenges has always been recruiting new Bigs, Rolston said. The organization has worked to convince the community that the commitment amounts to only four to five hours per month. And the relationship can be fun and enrich even the adult’s life.
“(In) a couple outings a month, a lot of good things can happen for a child,” Rolston said.
The need always outweighs the mentors who do volunteer their time. Meeting that demand is becoming only more difficult.
“It’s true, children are coming to us with more and more need than we’ve ever seen before,” Rolston said. “But yet, for the children we serve, to the best of our ability, we wrap our arms around that child, and that family and that Big. And we work together.
“Is there always a waiting list? Sure. But that’s where the driven behavior comes in,” she added.
The next chapter
Retirement will allow Rolston to pursue more life balance in her health and family – including daughters Tara and Jayne and grandchildren James, 7 and Hope, 5. But Rolston isn’t sure what else she’ll do after she leaves Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“I feel strongly that I’ll find just the right niche, just the right place for me, but I’m not in a hurry to identify what that is right now,” she said.
She’s intrigued with the emerging arts community in St. Petersburg, where she and her husband of 43 years moved a year and a half ago. They currently are building a new house in the city, complete with an art studio. Jim, a retired Pinellas County Utilities director, is pursuing a new career as an acrylic painter and sculptor, interests “buried deep” until he retired, his wife said.
Rolston herself is emphatically not artistic – “not at all,” she said. However, she is interested in how she might become involved with the arts community. The Rolstons lived almost four decades in north Pinellas County before moving to St. Petersburg.
“All of a sudden, there was a whole world I didn’t know anything about,” Rolston said.
Besides the obvious – missing the people she’s worked with – Rolston said she also will miss the structure of the nonprofit.
“Even though I talk about the demands of the job, I will miss being the orchestra leader,” she said. “I will miss putting together the individual talents of the staff to produce beautiful music.”
To get involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County call 518-8860 or visit www.bbbspc.org.