2010-01-07 / Front Page

Executive director of Big Sisters finds warm welcome in Jamestown

By Eileen M. Daly

Deb Saunders Deb Saunders The beauty of the island drew Deb Saunders to rent a home here in Jamestown, but the warmth of the community she has found is what has convinced her to stay.

“The people are so kind here. They remember your name. It’s kind of like a real-life Cheers,” she said.

Saunders moved to Jamestown in October, after working in Philadelphia for two years.

Her work – and her love of New England – is what brought her to the ocean state. She moved to Rhode Island to take the position of executive director of Big Sisters – R.I.

Although she is new to the state, Saunders is no stranger to the area. She previously lived on Cape Cod with her daughter, and said she longed to return to New England.

“I spent 10 years on the Cape with Children’s Cove, a child advocacy agency,” she said. While she headed that agency, Saunders said the program developed from a $10,000 grant-funded program into a nationally known model for treating abused children.

It was an “awesome job,” Saunders said – but it came with an emotional price.

“We conducted forensic interviews, which were legally binding, and worked with the police, DSS and Cape Cod Hospital,” she said. “We also ran a family program, worked with non-offending parents, and helped the families to heal.”

But Saunders said her moment of truth about her work came when she took her daughter to Disney World as a high school graduation present.

“When I found myself looking at Mickey Mouse and wondering if he were ‘perping’ the kids, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of this,’” she said.

Since she had previous experience working with the YMCA in Atlanta, Seattle and Boston, Saunders said she decided to return to the YMCA to remain in the human services field while removing herself from direct-care services. She accepted a position as vice president of the YMCA in Philadelphia and spent several years there before the pull of New England – and family – began to assert itself.

“I missed my daughter,” she said. “And I missed New England.”

When an opening for executive director became available with the Big Sisters organization in Rhode Island, Saunders decided to apply for it.

Her position involves managing the two major aspects of the Big Sisters organization: The human services side, which matches adult female volunteers with children in need of adult support and the donation center business, which gathers donations of clothing and other items to be sold to Savers, a thrift store chain.

“The donations account for almost half of our budget,” Saunders said.

Although people are quite generous with donations, securing adult matches for the girls is a bit more challenging, she said – there is a waiting list of girls and the organization is always looking for volunteers. Adult women who are available to meet with a girl at least every other week for one year can really make a “life changing impact” in a child’s life, Saunders said.

Interested volunteers can call Big Sisters at 921-2434 or visit the organization’s website at www.bigsistersri.org.

As for Saunders, having received such a positive welcome to Jamestown, she’s planning to stay.

“I’d love to buy a house here, but for now I’m hoping to secure a year-round rental,” she said.

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