Paul Plvan, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Colorado, and his 7-year-old “Little” had their first in-person meeting at Durango’s BMX park. But their mentorship began online – just one way the organization changed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“He was bouncing on his bed while we’re talking,” Plvan said. “(Recently), we went out for the first time one-to-one. It was marvelous.”
While helping kids guided Plvan to Big Brothers Big Sisters, his business background and “down-to-earth” leadership have played a key role in stabilizing it during financial challenges and the pandemic.
BBBS in Durango, a branch of the national nonprofit established in 1984, provides one-to-one mentors for children facing adversity. Plvan, who became the director in 2018, has led the nonprofit through a dire financial shortfall and the coronavirus. For him, it is the mission to help kids that is his guiding motivation.
“You don’t think a grown adult and a kid can have that kind of friendship,” Plvan said. “Mentoring gives them an outside, caring voice in an environment where they’re not getting some of that in their home.”
The nonprofit provides mentors to about 80 children in Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio and Pagosa Springs. In 2019, the organization was not going to survive without a big fundraising effort. Plvan, staff, the board and others organized a successful effort to raise $1,000 sponsorships for 100 mentorships in 100 days.
“Paul led us through that,” said Ryan Brungard, a BBBS board member. “I just can’t imagine as a leader how difficult that must be going to bed every night knowing that these kids are relying on the continuity of the organization.”
Plvan, who hitchhiked his way to Colorado when he was 20, spent his career in sales and marketing before arriving at BBBS. He was responsible for Fortune 500 marketing programs, including several of Time Inc.’s publications, Apple’s K-12 marketing division and Visa’s fundraising commitments to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
At age 31, he founded his first company. He moved to Durango in 2009 and is a chairman with Mercury Leads, a Durango-based sales outsourcing company.
For Plvan, leadership is about empowering others to see how they can make a change in BBBS, the community and kids’ lives. For those around him, Plvan’s confidence, down-to-earth demeanor and dedication to the BBBS mission stand out.
Harry LeSage, Plvan’s mentee of 10 years, first met Plvan when he was 7 years old. To LeSage, who is now 17, Plvan is a “super approachable,” 6-foot-plus “goofball.”
“He’s the type of person I’d want to be a mentor to my kids,” LeSage said. Plvan was always looking for ways to help, whether it was taking over BBBS or helping someone with a broken car, he said.
Plvan, a father of two, wanted to join BBBS because he loves working with children. He started out as a Sunday school teacher, became a coach, then started mentoring through BBBS.
“There was a lot of fear about how you manage a relationship. Are you going to live up to what that kid expects?” Plvan said. But he dove in, mentored LeSage, and was recently paired with another 6-year-old mentee.
As executive director, Plvan said his role is to restore fiscal stability and to build positive relationships in the community.
But the pandemic brought fresh challenges. Most of the families are at the poverty level, and the virus intensified needs for food access, concerns about paying rent, linguistic barriers and more. Staff focused more on providing services, while mentors suddenly shifted from in-person activities to bike maintenance and dance tutorials on the computer.
Two major fundraisers may not happen this year, and individual giving has decreased. Some grants are not available because of the virus’ economic impacts. The organization estimates it will see a $75,000 revenue decrease compared with 2020 budget projections, Plvan said. The nonprofit needs to raise about $275,000 annually to support 100 mentorships, which is the target set by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Closure is not on the table for nonprofit leaders.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to not make that happen, and so will the board,” Plvan said. “When you see the good of what it does for the children, (closure) would be a last option.”
Even with the challenges, Plvan remains focused on his motivation, working to give kids a chance at a better life. For his mentees, he had one message:
“We’ve got a lot of intolerance going on in this world right now. ... By helping somebody else, it changes your life,” Plvan said. “The more people can help other people, no matter what your cause, help.”