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Mentoring as an M.O.: CHSP alumna named president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cleveland


Yolanda Armstrong headshot


By her own admission, Yolanda Armstrong did not believe she was college material. She did not have the necessary grade point average for admittance. And she had been repeatedly told that her background was incompatible with success at a university. After participating in Upward Bound at Baldwin Wallace College, she was inspired to push forward. Growing up impoverished in Cleveland, Ohio, Armstrong believed that she could and would succeed despite the naysayers.


She had heard about Ohio University through the Upward Bound program and enrolled, earning a spot in the Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP) and the University. Her perseverance paid off, ultimately leading her to become the President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland. Armstrong says that her mentors played an essential role in preparing her to lead one of the nation's largest charities.


"Somebody mentored me, and I didn't know what mentoring meant back then. I just called that person my big brother or my big sister, which, interestingly enough, is what our Bigs are called in Big Brothers Big Sisters," she says.


The Cleveland agency is one of over 370 in the Big Brothers Big Sisters network and it has gained support from celebrities such as Hill Harper, Stevie Nix and spokesperson Jamie Fox. The organization aims to nurture the lives of at-risk children, including those aging out foster care and children whose parents are incarcerated— a demographic Armstrong has committed her life to serving.


Armstrong transitioned smoothly into the position last October, after leading PRO Kids and Families, a juvenile justice program in Cleveland.


Armstrong is a Cleveland native raised by her grandparents, who migrated to Ohio from the South. Their style of upbringing was supplemented by the Boysoft family, neighbors whom Armstrong calls her second family. Armstrong matriculated through the Cleveland Public School System, the same school system where many of her "littles" are enrolled. Today, according to the Ohio Department of Education, the Cleveland Municipal School District is failing its Report Card in state standards in achievement and graduation rate. However, Yolanda plans to help show children that they can achieve their dreams, regardless of their present situations.


Redefining "College Material"

In 1984, Yolanda Armstrong graduated from John Adams High School in Cleveland, Ohio. Four years later, she received her bachelor’s degree in health services administration from Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions. Though different from her predominantly black and Latino neighborhood, the diversity of Ohio University's campus equipped her with the ability to communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds. 


How did Armstrong navigate her new environment? By participating in every student organization she possibly could. She sang in OHIO’s Gospel Voices of Faith gospel choir, wrote articles for The Post campus newspaper and served as president of the Black Student Cultural Programming Board (BSCPB), initiating events such as its first “Black Baccalaureate.”

And if her extracurricular priorities didn’t keep her busy enough, her newfound "Athens parents" gave her two more reasons to manage her time well. Each weekend, Armstrong babysat for Dr. Harold Clayton Thompson III, a former director of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine's Center for Excellence in Multicultural Medicine. Armstrong credits the Thompson family, along with African-American Studies Professor Emerita Dr. Francine "Doc" Childs, and former Dean of Students Joel Rudy with keeping her focused throughout her undergraduate career.


Armstrong says that Ohio University provided her with an opportunity to improve herself and her community. She retuned to Cleveland upon graduation, which she says was one of the best decisions of her life. 


"Ohio University set the foundation that I needed to be able to come back and prove certain people wrong. I was able to go to college, and I did the best that I could. Not only did I do that, but I came back to Cleveland and earned my masters."


By Any Means Necessary


Armstrong's experience at OHIO has made her a missionary of sorts for the University. Since graduating, she estimates that she encouraged about 30 students to Athens to join the Bobcat family. One of those students is her daughter, Camarie Howell, an OHIO freshman.


Howell connected with a mentor, Senior Kent Harris, her first semester on Ohio University's campus through the multicultural women's mentoring program “Woman to Woman.” She says that her mother's wisdom has also helped her persevere through the ever-changing collegiate experience. 


"When I was a kid, I always wanted to quit if I wasn't good at something, but my mom always told me, 'No, you started it, now you've got to finish it out.’ So, everything I've done, even if I’ve hated it, I’ve always finished it."   


A Completed Work


Armstrong says her guiding principle is service and she views her position at Big Brothers Big Sisters as the realization of what she calls holistic mentorship, which focuses on developing the children's home lives.  To supplement the foundation being built in the home, the children are exposed to different cultural activities, such as theatre and professional sporting events, but are still given pragmatic tools to thrive in their respective neighborhoods.


Armstrong says her past experiences working with inner-city children provides the perfect platform to help the Big Brothers Big Sisters program reach new heights. "I like the Big Brothers Big Sisters program because it targets kids that I was already working with by counseling and helping them solve their problems.  All they needed next was a mentor to take them further—something that I couldn't give them as a therapist."






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