Nearly 20 years later, Owen Hill can vividly recall the influential message he saw on television.
“When I was in law school in Washington, D.C., I saw this commercial asking for volunteers for Big Brothers and Big Sisters,” said the shareholder at the Atlanta office of Littler, a global labor and employment law firm. “It really grabbed my attention, and I started thinking this was something that I wanted to get involved with.”
Owen didn’t waste any time after moving to Atlanta in the summer of 1999 for a job after law school.
“One of the first phone calls I made was to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta to offer my services as a mentor,” he said. “I told them I had time and I wanted to serve as a mentor and positive role model for a child.”
After the organization’s mandatory training sessions, Owen was paired in December 1999 with a 6-year-old, Eric Brown, thus creating a bond that continues to this day. Over the years, the two have spent countless hours talking, playing, going to movies and restaurants and sharing.
Initially, however, there was a bit of apprehension.
“When I met Eric for the first time with a Big Brothers coordinator, I was quite nervous and thought he would see me as a geeky guy who wasn’t ‘cool’ enough to be his Big Brother,” Owen said with a chuckle. “When we arrived at the apartment he shared with his mother and siblings, I could tell that Eric was nervous, too, especially as his mother and older brother were sitting there watching us.”
“We had to answer questions from the coordinator about ourselves to facilitate a discussion, and soon everyone started to feel more comfortable as we learned more about each other. Eric then scooted over and leaned against me and I realized that we were going to be fine right next to me. I found out that his mother was so excited that he had a Big Brother and was no longer on a waiting list.”
Following the guidelines of the organization, Owen spent on average about four hours every two weeks with Eric. They would go to a park, watch a movie, dine at a restaurant or participate in events sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sisters. Over the years, they shared a lot of life experiences together as Eric and his brother were junior groomsmen in Owen’s wedding and Owen was the first person Eric called when he got his high school diploma.
In an interesting twist, Eric’s brother connected with a mentor who had a connection with Owen.
“My roommate in those days was Angelo Spinola,” Owen said. “We went to law school together and were roommates there, too. When I told Angelo about Eric’s brother needing a mentor, he got involved. So, we were Big Brothers to two biological brothers, and now we are officemates at Littler here in Atlanta.”
Angelo is also still in contact with his “little brother.”
In recognition of his volunteer work, Owen in 2001 was honored as Big Brother of the Year for Fulton County, Georgia. In addition, he and Eric gained some notoriety as a speaking pair at fundraisers and eventually being the Atlanta organization’s longest continuous match.
“Eric had this amazing story of real hardship, and he did not mind sharing it with others to help promote Big Brothers,” Owen said. “And he had some really wonderful things to say about our relationship.”
Eric aged-out of Big Brothers at 18, but he and Owen maintain their closeness. He overcame struggles and secured his high school diploma. He and his girlfriend have a 1-year-old boy, and he is taking responsibility for her two other children, too.
“He is providing for these kids in the best way that he can,” Owen observed. “Just being a loving father is one thousand times better than anything that he had.”
Littler’s Atlanta office stepped up to help Eric, his girlfriend and the three children, who were living in an apartment without furniture or beds. Organized by Theresa Ramsey and Leslie Kaufman, attorneys and staff made donations to furnish the apartment over Christmas 2015. Also, Littler client Goodwill of North Georgia provided catered meals for the family at Christmas and New Year’s.
Beyond Big Brothers Big Sisters, Owen is a board member and a volunteer reader – along with a number of his Atlanta office colleagues – at Everybody Wins! Atlanta, a literacy program that connects local schools with volunteers from businesses who read to children during their lunch break to help them develop a love of reading. He also does pro bono work by advising Everybody Wins on employment issues and reviewing policies.
Prior to Everybody Wins, Owen was on the board of Positive Growth Boy's Home for five years. This residential and community-based agency seeks to help disadvantaged youth, particularly those who are homeless.
Helping out disadvantaged children has a special meaning for Owen and drives him to volunteer.
“It always struck me that there were kids who through no fault of their own seemed trapped in a hard life with no opportunities,” he said. “How are they going to succeed if they don’t have the same opportunities as other kids?”