One of the many questions the Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City staff ask you in the extensive interview to become a Big Sister is "What kind of Little Sister do you imagine mentoring?" To be honest, I didn't have a lot of parameters in mind because it had only recently occurred to me that I wanted to mentor anyone at all.
About a year ago, suddenly struck with the weight of my own self-absorption, I researched volunteer opportunities in New York and discovered Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, an organization that pairs adult mentors with at-risk children ages 6 to 18. I had worked with teenagers in a tutoring capacity when I was in college, but I was drawn to the one-on-one mentoring program that BBBS of NYC offered. I didn't have a list of specifics in mind when I applied, but I did have one: I didn't want to work with a young child.
Teenagers are almost adults, but young children are practically an alien species to me. Being the youngest child in my family, I hadn't spent a lot of time around small kids since I was one myself. Typically, I found myself either boring them by talking to them like an adult or talking to them like an infant, making them very angry (you mean 8-year-olds don't like playing Peek-a-Boo?).
I waited anxiously for my case worker to find a good match, and a month later, I received a call from my case worker -- her colleague, Delia, was working with the perfect Little Sister for me, but there was one caveat: she was seven years old. Reluctant to work with someone so young, but not wanting to miss out on a good opportunity, I agreed to talk to Delia. She told me about Patience, a sweet seven-year-old girl. Her dad was incarcerated and her older sister, who was only ten, recently fell into a coma. Her mom, Nina, was working overtime to support her four kids, but she was concerned the stress of their situation was taking its toll on Patience, so she signed her up to get a Big Sister. My heart broke as I heard this, but I felt inadequate and thought maybe a more experienced Big Sister would be better suited for Patience. Out of curiosity, I asked Delia what drew her to my file for this match. Her response? "Nina wants Patience's Big Sister to be funny." She had seen from my interview notes that I perform improv comedy. I gave an immediate sigh of relief. Maybe I didn't have years of experience working with at-risk youth, but if Nina was just looking for someone who could make Patience laugh and show her a fun time, that, I could do. I said yes on the spot.
Typically, after the initial meeting with the case worker and parent, it's up to the mentor to plan each outing. I decided to set the bar low by keeping it simple, so I took Patience to play soccer at a park in her neighborhood in Queens. Patience and I got along well enough when we had our initial meeting, but I was incredibly nervous about how well we would hit it off when we were left to our own devices for four hours. Would she talk to me? Would she be bored or hate the activities I had planned? Was the park a good idea? What if she got hurt? My inner monologue was cluttered with these questions as I walked her through the park toward the soccer field. As we were walking, we passed by two older men seated on a bench. It struck my attention that they were blatantly checking me out as we walked by (we've all been there, right?). I said nothing, but Patience immediately tugged on my shirt and full of gusto, she asked me, "Did you see those guys staring at your booty!?! That's so gross!" Another immediate sigh of relief. We both laughed, and my nerves disappeared. This girl and I were going to get along just fine. After a few hours of soccer and a burger run, our first outing was over, and as far as I could tell, it had been a success.
I've been hanging out with Patience for over six months now, and each outing brings a new experience for both of us. Living in New York City, there is no shortage of adventure or entertainment. We've been to museums, parks and countless pizza joints. We participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC 4k Race for the Kids, (their annual fundraising event and the perfect opportunity for Patience to meet SpongeBob Squarepants). We even braved the crowds at Rockefeller Center at Christmas. When she questioned the presence of so many guys in ill-fitting Santa suits trolling the streets, I happily explained to her the wonder that is SantaCon and reassured her they were all impostors. I've never encountered a more laid-back, hilarious child, and I count myself lucky to get to spend time with her (I swear her mom really knew what she was doing when she named that girl Patience). We always have fun, but sometimes I worry if it's enough. She doesn't talk about her dad or her sister, but I know it's not easy on her. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the desire to fix all of Patience's problems, but for the most part, what she simply needs is a friend. Some of the situations that the children in this program face force them to grow up too quickly. Between bullies at school, financial hardship, absent fathers or worse, how often do they get to just be a kid without worry? If I can offer her a few hours a month where she gets to simply be a child on one of the greatest playgrounds on the planet, I think that might be enough.
Want to make a difference to a child? Check out ways to become involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters here.
Originally from the Midwest, Stephanie Lechner is a writer and performer based out of New York. She has been volunteering with BBBS of NYC for almost a year.