By Christine Tomlinson, Minnesota Parent
Walking out of a concert at the Minnesota Zoo recently, my single-like-me friend was approached by an auburn-curled beauty of a young lady, about nine-ish I would guess. She held out her hand to show off a flattened penny engraved with animals. My friend bent down and returned the girl’s enthusiasm, admiring the treasure. It occurred to me that we folks not blessed with children of our own have a strange kind of magnetic draw with kids. I’m not sure what it is, but I imagine it has something to do with the untapped reservoir of kid-love that is fresh in us, but may be a bit drained for parents who tap into it all day long. We single folks retain the fascination of all things child-like, and that affords us a kind of pure alacrity when we’re approached by these harbingers of innocence and fun. Kids seem to instinctively recognize this and, to my joy, almost always act on it.
I was lucky a few years ago to find an ideal resource for the draw I felt to kids. I am a Big. We elders are referred to as “Bigs” by the staff at Big Brothers Big Sisters. Our young friends are “Littles.” The idea is simple. Spend time every other week or so with a young person. Hang out, entertain, and ultimately, educate each other. The Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) organization has two programs set up to match Bigs and Littles. I participate in the community mentoring program, where my Little and I get together on our own and seek out new adventures together.
There is also a school-based program, where Bigs visit a school once a week. My single friend (from the zoo) has participated in that program.
I signed up a few years ago when volunteering seemed a good fit in my lifestyle. I was confident that I would stay in the same place for longer than a couple of years, which is what had kept me from BBBS in the past. It almost seemed too easy — spending time with kids and calling it volunteering, but it also felt like a stepping stone into a more socially conscious direction.
The mission of this program, as I understand it, is to bring a new mentor into a child’s life. The way it works, as I’ve experienced firsthand, is that Littles get a friend, mentor, and confidante, while the Bigs get a friend, mentor, confidante, and a some real enlightenment in a “Little” package
My Little and I recently celebrated our sixth anniversary. Her name is Juanita. She is 14 years old now. She is the youngest of seven, with a single mother. Juanita likes math and cooking. She doesn’t like the Allman Brothers or Bob Dylan. While she once had the capacity to make an entire amusing afternoon out of two walkie talkies and a clipboard, she has now graduated to texting. She swings a bat like a pro. She has delicate, nimble fingers well suited to beading, and she thinks that holding hands is something that old people do.
As I look to the certainly interesting years we have ahead of us, years of romance and driving and moral challenges, I am more engaged and excited than even on that first meet and greet six years ago. She showed me her Barbie laptop that first day. She was full magnetism, understanding that I was there by choice in her living room, wanting to spend time with her and thinking that was pretty worthwhile. We clicked.
What struck me was the ability of the organization to hit on the perfect match right away. The BBBS process of setting up matches involves individual interviews and then a sort of test-date meeting, after which either party can decide to try again. But we didn’t need much time to know, Juanita and I. It felt good right away. And on our first outing when I realized that she got my sarcasm, I marveled at the wisdom of this organization to find me someone so suitable, and someone I knew right away was to be an important friend in my life. So far, we’ve had quite an influence on each other.
She has taught me about music that I was too old and unhip to try out on my own. She has reintroduced me to memories of who I wanted to be when I was her age. She’s given me a glimpse into her family culture, very different than my own, but one I greatly admire. She laughs at the way I pronounce the dishes at Mexican restaurants, but there she gave me my first taste of the lovely and luxurious Horchata, a refreshing beverage made of rice and almonds. In turn, I’ve introduced her to golf, softball, and cream cheese wontons. I’ve helped her perfect a cartwheel and berated her into almost always having a napkin in her lap at lunch, which I think she does now more to tease me than to please me.
My relationship with Juanita gives me a foray into family events with my friends and their kids, too. I am out there now myself, directing the proper way to run the bases (first to second, not directly to third) and embarrassing myself trying to play shortstop, not just sitting on the sidelines. I firmly believe that my personal adult growth is best achieved through new experiences, small humiliations, and the challenge of trying to parlay what little wisdom I’ve picked up into useful lessons to pass on to up and coming youth.
An unexamined life is one without the challenge of packing for a day at the beach with a teenager. The examined life is what I see through the eyes of a trusting and trusted young friend, like my Juanita.
Interested in Volunteering?
The Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities provides a mentor for every child who needs or wants one. Visit www.bigstwincities.org to find more information on volunteering and donating.