RIC students team up with Big Brothers to recruit and raise funds

Five students form an on-campus PR firm to develop a marketing campaign for the nonprofit organization.

PR Lab class students, from left, Jocelyn Danielson, Meredith Montaquila and
Vanessa Centeno recruit a RIC student to become a Big Brother during a campus
event on the RIC quad on April 14.
When five Rhode Island College communications majors signed up for the spring semester’s Public Relations laboratory class, they had no idea that they would almost instantly become a full-service public relations firm.

Their class project: develop and implement an actual public relations campaign for a nonprofit organization in the state. Their client: Big Brothers of Rhode Island.

Big Brothers of Rhode Island, founded in 1952 by the late Chief Justice of R.I. Family Court Francis J. McCabe, pairs fatherless boys ages 7-14 with men who are positive role models to help mentor them during the often troubling times of adolescence.

Recently, the organization has seen a downturn in both volunteers and support.

The students, doing business as Connect 5, contacted Val Sinesi, executive director of Big Brothers of Rhode Island, with the intent of assisting the struggling organization to recruit college students to become Big Brothers and raise money for scholarships through an on-campus PR campaign that the organization will own and use as a model for further PR efforts.

Sinesi accepted the offer on the spot. He met with the students during the second week of classes to explain the work and challenges of his organization and help define their mission. The students got right to work, targeting their RIC male audience, designing recruitment tools, and organizing fundraisers, all while preparing a formal presentation for the Big Brothers board of directors to be given at the end of the semester.

“We are anxious to learn new ways to promote our agency,” Sinesi said. He added that the students showed “tremendous enthusiasm and spirit” for the project and turned “a work project into a fun project.”

Meredith Montaquila, left, sells Big Brothers cookies to student Kayla Lukin.
First, the students needed to name their firm. They chose Connect 5 because, they said, this project would connect the five of them with each other, the campus and the community.

Next they came up with the campaign slogan: We need a few good men to become Big Brothers.

The group set a goal to enlist a least a dozen young men to become Big Brothers and raise $1,000 for a scholarship for Little Brothers interesting in attending RIC.

Social networking is a large part of their marketing plan. The students designed a Facebook page and Twitter account to communicate with their friends and encourage participation in the program. Outside of class, the students communicate mainly through Facebook.

“Their Facebook exchanges have replaced meetings and telephone or email messages,” said Jane Fusco, course instructor and RIC’s director of news and PR. “They communicate often and quite effectively through Facebook, staying in contact and tracking each other’s actions so there is no duplication of efforts.”

Class member Shawn Andrews of Providence, a Little Brother until he was 17, has a deeper appreciation for the project. About to graduate in May, Andrews said he is now ready to become a Big Brother, and would like to serve the organization in an advisory role. Andrews said that he is still in contact with his Big Brother,

Shawn Andrews, a RIC senior and
member of the Connect 5 on-campus PR
firm, reviews promotional materials that he
helped design to recruit students to become
Big Brothers.
Other class members that comprise Connect 5 are Jocelyn Danielson of Seekonk, Mass.; Vanessa Centeno, Meredith Montaquila and Talia Triangolo all of Providence.

Triangolo, a double major in theatre and communications, is writing and directing a video promotion for Big Brothers that will be seen on YouTube, Facebook, and the campus television station.

The students have been a presence at many campus events, including job fairs and athletic games, distributing fliers and sign-up sheets to those interested in becoming a Big Brother. In addition, they’ve arranged for in-store donation programs with several local restaurants and grocery stores including Texas Roadhouse and Venda Ravioli. Every Wednesday during the free period, they have been selling specially made Big Brothers cookie packs to the campus community.

“I’m learning more about what it takes to work in this industry. What is best of all is getting to know these four other completely different people and becoming a tight family that is sure to go far beyond the classroom,” said Centeno.

Danielson agrees that degrees of differences among the five students have had a positive effect on their work thus far.

Though the project is ongoing until the first week of May when classes end, the students have made great strides in their awareness and fundraising efforts. Big Brothers plans to announce the Connect 5 contributions at their annual board meeting in the spring.

“Working on the Big Brothers project has made my last semester one that I’ll never forget,” said Montaquila.

The Public Relations Laboratory class was originated in 1992 by Kay Israel, professor of communications at RIC. The course, intended for seniors, provides students with the opportunity to interface with a not-for-profit client, and its public, by creating an actual public relations campaign to be used or rejected by the client. Through the years, students have developed PR campaigns for such clients as Chance to Dance, Rhode Island Odyssey of the Mind, Big Sisters of R.I., R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Traveler's Aid, Emerging Women in Business, Arts and Business Council of Rhode Island, Community Support Services. In 1994, the class won a Bell Ringer award by the Publicity Club of New England for their efforts on a campaign for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Rhode Island. Fusco instructed the spring 2010 class offering while Israel was on sabbatical.

For more information about Big Brothers, contact Big Brothers of R.I. at (401) 432-9955 or www.bigbrothersri.org.