Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Big Impact

by Joey  |   

Volunteer and dog watching child snowboard in snow
Big Brother Josh Harris '10 and his Little Brother, Aaron, snowboarding in Anchorage. (Image courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska)

As someone who's built a career in the nonprofit sector, people often ask Heather Harris '04 for volunteering advice. "I love volunteering, and my network of family and friends knows that," she said with a smile.

She always recommends two things. First, if you have the skills and interests, join a nonprofit's board. "The second," she said, "is if you want to do direct service and make the largest impact, then be a Big."

Harris is the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska, matching adult volunteers with youth across the state in one-on-one relationships that change lives. It's the latest step in her community-focused career, and it all started at UAA.

During her first semester in college, a campus flyer caught her eye calling for volunteers at STAR (Standing Together Against Rape). At the age of 18, she joined the organization's 24-hour crisis hotline. It was a challenge with impact, and it encouraged her to switch her major from accounting. She graduated with a degree in human services, and a minor in psychology.

"I'm so incredibly grateful to UAA," she said. "That gave me such a good foundation for my career."

Since first volunteering as a teenager, she's gravitated toward youth-focused programs. "I ultimately started the STAR opportunity because, as a youth myself, I had a lot of friends who were experiencing some pretty difficult circumstances and wanted to learn how to best support them," she said. "In my career, as I moved forward, I just saw the real power that youth have as peers."

Armed with accurate information, peers can provide a readily accessible network of support. Harris kept that in mind while serving Alaska Youth and Parent Foundation - later Alaska Youth Advocates - as a program manager and executive director. Most recently, she was a senior consultant at Alaska's nonprofit accelerator The Foraker Group, a role she called "a gift."

Harris earned an executive master's in public administration at University of Washington in 2016 and started at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska soon after.

"I really just felt my heart calling me back to the role of an executive director, impacting kids lives on a daily basis," she said. In her home state of Alaska, with one of the nation's highest rates for child abuse, that was especially important.

"Research shows that one healthy adult is what it take to change so many of the major outcomes for youth in our communities," she said. "The youth in our program are seeking and wanting that opportunity and that connection with adults in such a deep way. That's a motivator for me."

Rick Mystrom launched Big Brothers of Anchorage in 1972, and continued volunteering even as he served as Anchorage mayor from 1994 to 2000.

Like other affiliates nationwide, the Alaska program matches vetted volunteers (called Bigs) with youth in the community (called Littles). Volunteers commit for at least a year, meeting two to four times per month, and some stay connected for decades. As CEO of the organization - now called Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska - Harris coordinates programs everywhere from Homer to Hoonah to Haines.

A Big serves as an additional adult in the youth's life, supporting the Little's parent or caregiver. Bigs are especially valuable as a consistent voice for youth who move from home to home or shelter to shelter, providing a listening ear as Littles talk through challenges they might not otherwise share with an adult. Each match is unique-some help with homework, others take their Little snowboarding. It's meaningful work, but there's plenty of room for fun.

"Our organization does not function and move forward without our fabulous volunteers," Harris said. "It wouldn't be possible without them volunteering. The need is incredible."

Harris and her husband, also a UAA graduate, have volunteered as Bigs for years. "You don't have to have all the answers," she said, addressing one of the primary concerns of potential volunteers. "That's what Big Brothers Big Sisters staff is here for, to help support that process. All you have to do is show up and be who you are and build a relationship with this youth, and we can help with questions along the way."

As CEO, Harris is even more likely to recommend Big Brothers Big Sisters than before, but she's excited to help anyone on their path to volunteering.

"I think that as community members it's our responsibility to impact our community in a positive way, and volunteering and engaging with the nonprofit sector is such an easy way to do that," she said. Whether you volunteer short-term or long, on your own or with your family, there are opportunities to make a difference in art, health, education, environment and more.

The nonprofit sector has ways for you to connect, she said. "Reach out and find what your passion is and move forward in that."

Want to be a Big? Have questions about the process, or simply want to make a donation? Learn more about Big Brother Big Sisters of Alaska at


This story originally appeared in the UAA Green and Gold News.