Ensuring a Brighter Future for Our Children

02 Dec 2023

Danielle Hernandez believes in igniting the power and promise of youth



Danielle Hernandez’s job title is a mouthful at about 13 words long, but it aptly describes the far-reaching role she fills in our community. As the equity specialist and program director for Cashiers & Highlands, Jackson, Macon, Clay, Graham, Cherokee and Qualla Boundary of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), her job is to “create and support mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth.”

The job title may intimidate some, but Hernandez is not easily dissuaded. Although she smiles when she says she didn’t exactly know what she was applying for when she saw an employment ad in the newspaper for a program director at BBBS in 2019.

“The job description was not very comprehensive,” explains Hernandez, who at the time was running her own cleaning business. “But I knew a big part of it was the chance to work with children again.” She has a degree in elementary education and taught kindergarten, 1st and 5th grade before starting her cleaning business.

The chance to work with children was just the starting point for what has become more than a job for Hernandez. For the past five years, she has managed employees and grown the organization’s community programs. Adding the equity specialist role to her responsibilities was much more than just semantics. “A lot of my passions are in the social justice realm. I am particularly energized by working with the underrepresented Hispanic communities.”

Hernandez’s husband, Juan, is originally from Mexico, and she said he has been a great connector to the Hispanic community. The couple’s meet-cute happened at a laundromat in Sylva in 2011. After running into each other several times at the laundromat, Hernandez finally decided to write Juan a note in what she calls “bad Spanish” asking him to text her. Within 30 minutes he texted in Spanish and he kept up that ruse for a few weeks until they ran into each other in the Walmart parking lot and he said, “Hi, how are you doing?” in perfect English. They were married in 2016 and their adorable toddler, Alexander, was born in 2021.

Community Collaborations

Making connections is a phrase that comes up repeatedly in our conversation, and it’s what gives Hernandez the energy and passion to accomplish so much. “I love collaborating with other organizations,” she explains. “It’s not necessary to always reinvent the wheel. Discovering what other nonprofits in the community are doing and sharing resources is key. I think we lost sight of that during COVID, but with the Lunch Bunch and other collaborations we’re getting back on track.”

The “Lunch Bunch” is a group of around 15 nonprofit directors and church leaders in our community who get together monthly to discuss problems and propose solutions to such issues as food and housing insecurity in our community.

In June, BBBS partnered with the International Friendship Center, the Boys and Girls Club of the Plateau, the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library and the WNC Rural Immigrant Services Collective to host a celebration of children at the Cashiers-Glenville Recreation Center. “Dia Del Nino is one of the only events that is totally about the kids, where the kids are the focus and are celebrated,” says Hernandez. “The entire event is free to attendees, and Spanish was the main language spoken. We had 250 attend the first year we threw the event, in 2021, and this year we had 451 people. It was wonderful to see how much love there is in the community from all different people for our Hispanic neighbors. Just having a safe space to host an event like this is really a gift.”

Another BBBS community partner is Uncomplicated Kitchen in Cullowhee. Through educational outreach, they work to empower people to cook and grow the nutritious foods they want to eat. Their mission is to teach community members how to plan meals, shop for ingredients, and cook healthy, simple and affordable recipes.

“They taught our kids about going to the grocery store and picking healthy food on a budget, stretching your budget and eating nutritiously,” says Hernandez. “The kids took over the kitchen, learned about adding seasonings, trying different veggies and how to safely use knives in the kitchen.”

Bigs and Littles

At the heart of BBBS is, of course, matching the kids to an adult who can be a positive influence. BBBS works to ensure every child in Western NC has an enjoyable, long-term relationship with a caring adult who believes in them and sees their potential. They select and match mentors with children facing adversity and provide ongoing activities, training and support services for both families and volunteers to foster a successful match relationship and a lasting connection.

Spending just a few hours a month with a child can have a profound effect. When compared to their non-mentored peers, Little Brothers and Little Sisters are 52% less likely to skip school and 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugsand there are so many other immeasurable benefits that Littles will experience from having a consistent and caring adult in their life, including higher self-confidence and personal aspirations.

When matched with their Bigs, Littles gain a role model, a friend and access to new experiences through which they build higher aspirations for their lives. These relationships provide them with the support they need to achieve academic improvement, growth in self-confidence, and development of life skills, and reward mentors with the experience of being an integral part of that young person’s success.

There are two ways mentors can get involved: either site-based, at the child’s school, or community-based, which allows Bigs and Littles to explore other interests like hiking, throwing a Frisbee at the park or just getting a coke together.

“And it’s not just full-time residents who can be Bigs,” explains Hernandez. “We are working to tap into part-time folks in the area. We only ask our Bigs to commit to 4 hours a month. It doesn’t have to be in person, it can be via Facetime or a mailed letter, whatever works.”

Hernandez was matched with her own Little in 2019. Her Little was 12 years old when they met, and she is now 17. “She is a vivacious, enlightening and impressive young woman,” says Hernandez. Her Little is the oldest of three sisters. One of the younger sisters also got matched with a Big, and it made all the difference. The sisters used to fight, but now they get along, so there is greater peace for the whole family. “Being a Big effects not just the Little, but the whole family,” says Hernandez. “And I can’t express how much I get out of being matched with my Little and her family as well. l truly believe I have gained more from this relationship than I ever could have hoped I’d be able to give.”

For Hernandez, it’s these relationships with entire families that have been life changing. “I didn’t realize how deeply connected I would be to these families. I really feel my family has grown to include so many others. It’s been an honor to execute the dreams I’ve had for our community, but it’s also been very humbling just seeing how passionate so many others are for inclusivity and equality. We can do so much more when we work together.”

To enroll a child, become a mentor or find out more information, contact BBBS Equity Specialist and Program Director Danielle Hernandez at 828-399-9133 or go to their website, www.bbbswnc.org.



Danielle Hernandez

Position: Big Brothers Big Sisters Equity Specialist and Program Director

Hometown: LaBelle, FL. Moved to Sylva, NC, when she was 9 years old.

Education: Smoky Mountain High School and Discovery Program, Sylva, dual enrollment in Job Corps. Bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Western Carolina University.

Family: Husband Juan, son Alexander, age 2 ½.

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