CHAMPAIGN — As a sophomore in college, aspiring businessman Sam Banks volunteered to be a Big Brother.
“I got this kid who was biracial and never knew his dad. His mom was struggling. The impact I had on him in terms of his view on life and what he could become changed my life,” Banks said.
That simple act of volunteerism more than 40 years ago steered Banks into a career in social services that ended up incorporating business skills anyway.
He’s now ready to end that chapter of his life.
On Tuesday, he announced his intention to retire as executive director of the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club in Champaign after eight years on the job.
But the affable Banks, whose smile can make almost anyone feel better or get out their checkbook to support whatever children’s cause for which he is crusading, has no plans to fade into the retirement sunset.
“What I want to do is take life at a different pace. I have talked with people and organizations about doing consulting, and I have some business opportunities I want to spend some time developing,” he said.
Banks, who spent 26 years at Cunningham Children’s Home, 20 as CEO, and another four at the helm of a Chicago-area boarding school for disadvantaged children prior to coming to the club, will remain its director through the end of June 2021.
The search for his replacement will begin right away.
Among his retirement plans is to write, combining his social work skills with his previous sideline as a college-level basketball referee for 20 years.
“The skills and the rules of officiating, I think, are comparable to what it takes to be successful in life situations. I want to talk about those and how we can use those to get us through conflict. I can use real-life examples ... like what did the official do when the coach threw the chair, how did he act with fans yelling at him?” Banks said.
Banks said his upbringing on Chicago’s west side — he’s the oldest of seven children — prepared him well to handle conflict.
“I think I’ve always had the kind of disposition that helps in troubled situations to deal with things. My approach to life is that there are answers, and if you keep your head and think through things, you can find those answers,” he said.
Positivity is a large part of his disposition.
He was 13 when his father died, leaving him in the man-of-the-house role for a couple of years before his mother remarried and had two more children.
“That helped develop my sense of responsibility. I’ve never been afraid to be in a leadership position to have to do those kinds of things,” he said.
As the CEO at both Cunningham and the Boys & Girls Club, Banks needed to get those organizations on firm financial footing to ensure their futures — something he accomplished in both places.
“At Cunningham, we took an organization that basically had worked with kids on campus and expanded to kids in the community, establishing an education program in the community, establishing a significant foster care program, finding homes for kids to live in, establishing independent living for kids transitioning into adulthood,” he said.
The Boys & Girls Club was serving about 80 children when Banks arrived in 2012.
“Last year, we served over 1,500 kids, members and nonmembers. We’ve expanded into Rantoul. We work with the school district, and we are very proud we have partnered with the Champaign Park District over the last two years to be part of the new Martens Center. That will open in 2022 and allow all our elementary kids to be in one location,” Banks said of the multipurpose community center planned for North Market Street in Champaign.
“I’ve been proud to see both organizations be able to grow holistically in all areas,” he said.
Those tasks accomplished, Banks said the time is right for him to try other things.
Travel with his wife, Maureen, who continues to work at the University of Illinois, is on the bucket list once the world gets healthier. So is golf for both of them.
“Our biggest passion is spending time with the grandkids,” he said of their three offspring, ages 4 and under.
The Bankses have three adult children: Bryan Banks, who just started his own building and construction supply company locally and officiates college-level football; Brittany Simon, who works in marketing at Carle; and Danielle Banks, an actress and writer in Los Angeles.
Even before the pandemic and George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis sparked nationwide racial unrest, Banks had been considering a new path.
Fortunately for Champaign County, it includes staying put.
“I do want to stay involved in the community and be a part of supporting the work that needs to be done to bring the community together,” he said.
And there’s also visiting his Little Brother.
“We still keep in touch. He lives in Arizona and is in real estate,” Banks said, smiling.