• by Christine E. Smith •
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around” — Leo Buscaglia
I signed up for Mentoring Youth Nantucket (formerly Big Brothers/Big Sisters) at a Chamber of Commerce Business after Hours gathering. Two glasses of wine merry, and I thought, yes, I can be a Big Sister. I can surely have a little fun with a kid. A casual ballgame, a beach walk, a movie. Maybe wing night. Having been usurped for so long by the challenge of raising four children of my own, I was long overdue for some sort of volunteer endeavor. I grabbed the paperwork, shook the director’s hand, and off I went. The application sat for many months and many excuses, before I finally picked it up and summoned the courage to fill it out. What I did not bargain for was the joy, laughter, tears, and importance of this beautiful, unexpected journey. And that’s only my side of the story.
Day One: David, the director, called and said that after several months of waiting, we have a match. A little girl. Six years old. First grade. But you have to give it a year’s commitment. A YEAR? Of course, I would give her my life. Well, wait a minute, maybe not. What if I don’t like her? What if she doesn’t like me? What if she is weird, what if she thinks I am weird? Then I could give her nothing. No matter what one may promise with their words, I know enough about relationships to say it is so. Especially for this little girl.
Equipped with only her grandmother’s name, I facebook stalked her. What I found was a tiny profile pic on her page, with her young uncle climbing a ladder with her. She was distant, but I could see her long brown hair and beautiful round eyes. She was wearing a little red Nantucket sweatshirt and a grin. A grin that would one day connect with mine, linking our similar spirits in an age-defying feat. I was taken aback by her beauty. Some of it only imagined at the time. Or maybe not so, because it shone through the screen. She was definitely beautiful.
One week later, I met the girl named Mariella for the first time. I couldn’t wait. She showed me her dolls, four huge shelves of them, the two nice American Girl ones too expensive to play with (self imposed rules, I am sure), her three Doras (one of them too hard to sleep with), and the one stuffed way in the back of her toy pyramid, shorn hair and crayoned face. This one, she was the proudest of, presenting her with an ear-to-ear smile. She also showed me all of the pictures on the hallway wall leading up to her room. The mom that was unable to raise her, the younger half-sister who lives with her other grandmother now, none of her dad, and her beloved grandparents whom she happily lives with now. I smiled, I hugged her, I admired her crayoned doll most of all, agreed that I, too, did not like hard Doras and left. That night was life-changing, for both of us.
I cried for almost an hour in my car afterwards at the thought of the hardships this small child has had to face so early on in life. THIS child. A real person. I not only loved her already, I even loved her crayoned doll. They say that behind every cloud, there is a silver lining. I hoped this would be true for this little girl.
I continued to see her. Probably a lot more than I should have, according to the program suggestion of twice a month. My goal was to build her trust in me, one visit at a time. Although I can be late or annoyingly distracted for different appointments, I was always to the dot on time for this special creature. She was depending on me.
She says a lot of funny things. Whenever I leave her, she wants to know how many “sleeps” until she can see me again. I have since bought her a calendar so we can mark it off. One time I suggested we take my yellow lab down to Tuppancy, the local dog park, and she said her legs were tired, could we possibly drive on? I called her the night before Thanksgiving and asked if we could go to the playground. She replied with a degree of astonishment and said, in a small squeaky voice, “You would pick me up on a holiday?” Of course I would sweetheart, I replied. Whatever foods she dislikes, she says she is “allergic” to. She is a fierce mom to her dolls. She does not eat meat (although she really does) because she is a “veterinarian,” and the Easter Bunny knows her likes because he speaks with Santa Claus. She cries in haunted houses. The world according to Mariella. What I was not prepared for is that it became my world too.
Being a Big Sister also has its fair share of parenting moments. When you walk into a store, you have to make it perfectly clear what you are there for, and that does not include toys or candy. Or you will see the best acting job on the planet, as she drops to her knees, puts her hands in prayer mode and groans “puhleeeeeeeeeze?” as if it were her dying wish. When she orders a “large,” she really means a “small.” She always takes her coat off, even in the chill of winter. And in the summer, it’s hard to get more clothes on her than a bathing suit. She loves adventure and boots, but hates having her hair combed. She leaves her mittens everywhere, and she sings on the swings and in the shower. When she sees friends on the street she hugs them. Although she never sits still, her mouth drops open when she watches SpongeBob. She counts the stairs as she walks up, is in love with a boy named Alfred, and got gum on the backseat of my car. Occasionally we have quiet moments too. Her eyes like dark pools of gratitude and truth, not afraid to stare through mine, straight to the heart. And then some. Mariella Magic.
Sometimes, she can cut to the quick of your soul. Like the time I threw her a seventh birthday party for her and her classmates. She patted me on the arm and said, “I am a beautiful girl. You are a beautiful lady. Will you be mine forever?”
Our time together is busy and wonderful. We have seen Santa, had manicures, been to movies and plays and met actors backstage, made cookies, danced to Lady Gaga, gone shopping and to church, gone horseback riding, traveled to Cape Cod for an overnight, eaten monster pancakes, gone Wii bowling, played Go Fish, held dinner parties at my house, played hide-and-go-seek (not my fav, but guess who loves it!), and even done a modeling stint aboard a yacht! (Told you she was beautiful). I taught her how to make coffee; she taught me how to make bracelets out of rubber bands. I shamelessly have asked friends for experiences they could offer; their response has been overwhelming. I found myself reaching out and advocating in a way that I would never have even done for my own children.
A year has passed since we first met. Happy Anniversary to us. We celebrated by baking a red cake with purple frosting (she is “allergic” to any other confection), blowing out candles and making wishes for the future. Our future.
This is what being a Big Sister or Brother to a child in need can offer. A chance for a kid who has faced adversity to learn, grow and experience a difference in life, consistently, one day at a time. I cannot wait for tomorrow with this girl, my “little sister,” Mariella. Thank you, sweetheart.
Nantucket Youth Mentors matches children with caring, responsible adults with similar interests. Research shows that a child who participates for one year or more in a supportive one-to-one friendship is less likely to use drugs or alcohol, engage in violent behavior, and more likely to form positive relationships, graduate high school and attend college.
You can make a significant difference to the life of a Nantucket child by becoming involved. Just a few hours a month is all that it takes to offer a long-lasting contribution for a child. If you have an interest, please contact David Zieff, Executive Director at 508-325-6423 or firstname.lastname@example.org