BEING A BIG SISTER
Hoodies and hugs
Well, Mary and I had our first evaluation a couple of weeks ago. This involved Mary having a meeting with Tanya, our case manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters, and then me having a separate meeting with Tanya. I was surprised how nervous I felt just before she arrived. I suppose it was because I want Mary to like me. It’s all very well volunteering to mentor someone, but it feels quite a responsibility and I had this niggling worry that Mary would say she didn’t like me, or would complain about something.
However, talking to Tanya turned out to be very reassuring. Apparently Mary had told her she really enjoyed our get-togethers and that she wished she could spend more time with me. I was so pleased to know that this relationship between myself, a fifty-something woman, and a 16-year-old young girl is beginning to work. Not only that, but I was able to talk to Tanya quite openly about my worries that I wasn’t doing anything ‘interesting’ with Mary every time we saw each other. Tanya assured me that the point of mentoring is mostly just to ‘be’ for the child and that I should never push myself out of my comfort zone. That was a relief, because I’d begun to envisage myself having to attend hip hop concerts or pound around a basketball court. Neither of those would be my choice of fun things to do — by a long chalk.
We also discussed some of Mary’s negative aspects, like her angry moods with her peers and her ability to manipulate others. The main thing is to be aware of these qualities and try to sidestep them when they come up. Certainly Mary seems to be involved in far fewer fights recently, and she hasn’t had a school detention for some time. When I first met her they were regular occurrences, so it seems her anger is more under control.
The manipulation still happens every now and then, although it usually makes me laugh. One week Mary happily linked arms with me while we were wandering around a shopping mall. After a few moments she said “Have I told you that I love you?” I was slightly surprised and my immediate thought was ‘What does she want?’ (I haven’t raised three kids without being able to recognise that kind of approach). Sure enough the next thing was “It’s my friend’s birthday tomorrow and I would love to buy her a small birthday present. Could I have a little bit of money because the home doesn’t give us any for that kind of thing?” Very clever — that little wrench of the heart strings. I smiled to myself and asked aloud if she was perhaps planning to buy a packet of cigarettes. (She had previously confessed that she has the odd smoke, but after I told her how much smoking can cost a person over a lifetime, she told me she had stopped). She assured me that the money wasn’t for cigarettes and that she had definitely stopped smoking.
I thought about it for a few moments as we returned to the car park and wasn’t quite sure what to do. In the end I just did what came naturally. I showed her my nearly empty purse and said she could have the tiny amount of money in it, even though that was all I had until the end of the month (which was the next day). She looked profoundly embarrassed and refused to take it even though I urged her to. Finally when we said goodbye and she was walking back into the home I called out “Oh, and I love you too, even if you do ask me for money.” She turned around and waved with a huge grin and I felt that I had somehow done the right thing.
The following Sunday I took Mary to watch my brother’s band play locally. I warned her they were all ancient rockers, but that there would be some people her age there. She was slightly apprehensive and when we walked in she was obviously feeling a bit uncomfortable and stayed close to my side. I noticed she pulled the hood up on her hoodie and she kept it up throughout the evening even though the weather was warm, which may or may not be to do with shyness, but I decided not to draw attention to it. Lots of teenagers like to use their hoodies as a sort of security blanket. However, we sat close together and I included her in the general conversation and she began to relax.
It was a wonderful afternoon. The audience was all ages, the music was great, there were six-year-olds and sixty-year-olds dancing together and everybody was singing along to the choruses. Mary told me she didn’t recognise much of the music, which wasn’t surprising since it was mostly seventies and eighties hits, but then the band knocked out a couple of songs she recognised, including a Bob Marley, Mary was soon singing along with the rest of us. Later in the evening I took her home. She hugged me as she left but I couldn’t help wondering how much she had enjoyed herself.
We all have to go through new experiences as we grow up, some of which can be difficult, or even unpleasant. It’s part of our learning curve and it’s often those experiences that help to build up our confidence. The more we do or make ourselves do, the easier it becomes to do all kinds of new things. However, if we have someone who can accompany us on some of those new challenges, such as a parent or a best friend, it makes it a lot easier to deal with. Living in a home as an orphan means that those experiences can be limited. Of course the home takes the girls on outings and encourages them to join in with activities at school, but it’s difficult for care workers to make sure that all the children get the individual attention and experiences they would obtain if they lived a ‘normal’ family life.
So, Tanya seems to be right about a mentor just ‘being’ with a child. Perhaps Mary did feel a bit strange being in a completely new environment, but another time I’m certain she’ll know what to expect and feel less worried by it. The fact that I was there at the beginning as a kind of guide to where to sit and how to behave, and to order her drinks and accompany her to the toilets helped her confidence grow so that gradually she was able to relax and enjoy herself. In fact yesterday she was very excited when I told her there’s another gig later this month. I asked if she would like to go again. “Yes please!” she replied with a little bounce of excitement and she gave me a big warm hug as we said goodbye. I wonder if the hood will go up again next time ...
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth mentoring non-profit organization. It was founded in the USA in 1904 and became international in 1998. The program matches youth in need with adult volunteers in one to one relationships which have a direct and lasting positive impact on the lives of the young people. For further information go to www.bbbsi.org