Big Brother Toru and Little Brother Javi

Big Brother Toru and Little Brother Javi

Big Brother Toru has great memories of his early childhood in Japan.  But when he started junior high, he says, life got a lot harder.

“I was pressured to succeed academically, and it was unbearable,” he says. “I was not a bad student, but a lost student. I wasn’t focused and I didn’t have goals.”

Toru remembers it taking a long time for him to overcome the pressure of those years. He came to America to find a new life, and when he worked as a firefighter and later a photojournalist, he was able to find mentors who showed him the way forward.

“In each job, I was blessed to have mentors who took me under their wing and guided me through the ups and downs of life and my career,” he says. “Had I had these dedicated mentors when I was younger, my childhood in Japan would have been very different.”

“I don’t know if I will ever be able to show him how much he means to me.”

– Little Brother Javi

Toru decided that he wanted to be that positive force for someone else, so he decided to become a mentor.  He signed up to be  a Big Brother, and he was matched with a 6-year-old named Javi.

Even at such a young age, Little Brother Javi was already going through a lot. His father left the family when Javi was a year old, his sister had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer, and he was struggling at school. There were so many things that Javi couldn’t control. Toru started by focusing on what Javi could control — school.

“I reminded him of the importance of doing his homework and studying, and soon his grades improved,” Toru says. “I saw the potential he had to be better than his past grades. He just needed someone to encourage him to succeed.”

Their match has only grown since. They have developed a love of for the outdoors, often spending their free time going hiking and kayaking. Javi has grown, too, going from a 6-year-old to a 6-foot-tall, 230-pound defensive lineman playing varsity football. Through it all, Toru continues to be one of Javi’s strongest supporters in all areas of his life.

“I remember one time, he came to one of my football games and I was not doing too great in the first quarter,” Javi says. “Then, I looked up and saw him and my mom watching and cheering me on. I’m pretty sure that game ended up being one of my best.”

With Javi now 16 and right around the age when the pressure of Toru’s adolescence became overwhelming, Big Brother Toru is committed to continuing to providing his support, not applying pressure, so he can succeed.

At the beginning of Boshanna’s senior year, her best friend and her brother were involved in an incident that resulted in their arrest. It hit Boshanna hard. Big Sister Karen remembers it being one of Boshanna’s lowest points.

“Boshanna was devastated and depressed,” she says. “She stopped going to school.”

For four months, Boshanna didn’t attend school. Even when she faced truancy court, her dedicated Big Sister never lost faith in her. They talked about it, and Big Sister Karen let Boshanna know she was disappointed and that she felt graduating high school was crucial.

“I feel she believes in me a little more than others.”

– Little Sister Boshanna

Eventually, Boshanna decided to return to school and finish out the school year. She credits Karen for helping her turn things around.

“I would have dropped out of school if it were not for Karen,” she says.

Big Sister Karen has been there for Boshanna since they shared their first match meeting at a McDonald’s.

“She was a quiet 9-year-old,” Karen says. “I was nervous, excited, and hopeful.”

Boshanna was growing up in a home affected by depression and substance abuse. Her grandmother enrolled her as a Little Sister to bring a little more stability to her life.

Their connection wasn’t always strong. In the beginning, Big Sister Karen says, she couldn’t get a read on Boshanna.

“I often left our visits wondering if she was enjoying our time, looking for reassurance, unsure if I was doing any good,” Karen says.

Karen remained consistent. She tried to show Boshanna she cared about her and wasn’t going anywhere. She delivered balloons to her school on her birthday, helped her shop for school supplies, and listened to her when she needed an outlet to talk about her family.

Over time, their connection solidified and they began scrapbooking all their adventures. Before they knew it, that scrapbook was overflowing.

“We have been paired for eight wonderful years,” Boshanna says. “I enjoyed every bit of it.”

Since her return to school, Boshanna has been exceling in the classroom, and she has resolved to succeed in all aspects of her life. She recently got a job at McDonald’s, the place she first met Big Sister Karen.

She quickly mastered every station at the restaurant. Many teenagers might spend their first paycheck to go out with friends, buy new clothes, or save for a car. Boshanna had something else to buy first: her cap and gown.

Big Brother Nick and Little Brother Gavin

Big Brother Nick and Little Brother Gavin

Gavin used to lie in bed, crying, because his dad showed no interest in being part of his life. Dealing with the pain of that crowded out everything else. He started struggling with his grades and getting in trouble at school. Gavin’s mom was worried about her son.

She turned to Big Brothers Big Sisters for help, and Gavin was matched with Big Brother Nick.

Their first match meeting took place one evening at a McDonald’s. Gavin arrived first and anxiously waited for Nick to get there. When Nick walked through the doors, Gavin beamed.

“I’ll never forget his curious eyes and smiling face that first evening,” Nick says.

The two hit it off right away and quickly began making memories. Nick took Little Brother Gavin to explore the flooded Wichita River, and to experience his first Texas Rangers game.

“We were so lucky to be matched with someone that genuinely cares about making Gavin a better person.”

– Little Brother Gavin’s mom

Over time, they built trust in their relationship, and Gavin’s mom began to see signs of progress in Gavin’s focus and behavior. But change doesn’t happen overnight, even when you have a Big brother.

When Gavin was pulled out of class for misbehaving, Nick took off work and drove 20 miles to go to his school to talk to him. Gavin’s mom says that moment was a defining one for their match.

“He talked about his personal experiences as a child and things Gavin could have done to avoid trouble,” she says. “He also let Gavin know that no matter what, he wasn’t giving up on him.”

Now, even when Gavin is in trouble, he knows he has someone who will take time to listen him and still want to be in his life.

“I can always talk to him about anything,” Gavin says. “I know he listens even when I’m sad or angry.”

At the beginning, Nick set out to accomplish two sets of goals for his match with his Little Brother. The first were short-term goals mainly focused on improving Gavin’s behavior in class. Nick says he is making strides toward that one. The second set of goals are long-term and a little loftier.

“Because of his relationship with his own father, my long-term goals revolve around me showing him what it takes to be a good man, a good father, and a good husband,” Nick says.

Nick knows his goals are ambitious, so he has relied on Big Brothers Big Sisters staff for support and guidance throughout the match. He knows they are always a phone call away.

Gavin’s mom has already began to notice a difference in her son.

“Since he has had Nick in his life, Gavin rarely talks and never cries about his dad,” she says. “Having a male person in his life that really ‘listens’ to Gavin has resulted in better self-confidence, better grades and improved behavior.”

By the looks of it, Nick is one his way to reaching his goals, with Gavin benefiting the most.

Big Sister Lynne and Little Sister Sophie

Big Sister Lynne and Little Sister Sophie

Hidden beneath Sophie’s shy demeanor was an artist who just needed help being brought to the surface. Sophie’s Big Sister, Lynne, helped her chip away her shyness and find her self-confidence.

When Big Sister Lynne and Little Sister Sophie were first matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters, they met in the school library for an hour each week. Lynne tried talking to Sophie about music, family, friends, school, hobbies, food, and movies, but Sophie would only give short, polite responses. It wasn’t until they started talking about books that Sophie became animated. She recommended books to Lynne, and Sophie was impressed by how seriously her Big Sister took the recommendations.

“I remember being surprised whenever she’d come back the next week having actually read them and even took notes on things to talk about with me,” Sophie says. “I loved talking about them and the genuine interest she showed towards them was very important to me.”

“I got the greatest Little Sister, and I get the privilege of watching her grow into an amazing young woman.”

– Big Sister Lynne

Exploring literature in the library allowed Big Sister Lynne and Little Sister Sophie to build trust. Eventually, they wanted to be able to do activities outside the school, so they transitioned to being a community-based match and continued to build on their strong foundation. Lynne was excited to explore new things with Sophie, but she found that Sophie didn’t enjoy shopping, outdoor activities, or swimming, all things Lynne loved. Lynne admits that they weren’t “a match made in heaven,” but says there was something special about her Little Sister.

“There was something deep in Sophie that I respected and was drawn to: her strength, her maturity, and surprisingly enough because she was so shy, her very clear sense of herself,” Lynne says. “I was mesmerized.”

As the two continued to explore possible interests for Sophie, Lynne discovered that Sophie had a talent for art. They began attending an eclectic local art center with galleries and art classes. They became weekly visitors, where Sophie had private lessons with student interns. Whether using pencil, crayon, clay, acrylic, water color, block printing, Sophie had a knack for art. The Director of Education at the center awarded her the title “Student Fellow” to recognize her love for and dedication to art.

“She painted a ghost ship from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ as her student project, and it was hung in the gallery along with her ‘Student Fellow’ award,” Lynne says. “I was so proud of her.”

The artist was surfacing in Sophie, and Lynne wanted to help Sophie continue uncovering her talent and striving to reach her potential. When Sophie began preparing for high school, Lynne looked into a private school with a great art program. The tuition was steep, so Lynne worked with the school, Sophie’s guardians, and Big Brothers Big Sisters to help bring the tuition down significantly, and she created fundraisers to enable the community around Sophie to help her cover the tuition. Everyone in Sophie’s life pulled together to make her dream a reality.

“This school has allowed me to meet some truly amazing people,” Sophie says. “Not only has she helped me immensely these past couple of years, she’s proven to be an amazing friend.”

The once-shy Sophie has changed so much since she first met Big Sister Lynne. She now creates costumes and works on the sets of her school productions, including Cirque de Soleil and The Wizard of Oz. She creates beautiful things, but the best work of all may be who she’s becoming, in part thanks to her Big Sister.

The first time Little Brother Michael met his Big Brother, as soon as he got off the bus, he asked him a question. “Exactly how old are you?”

Geoffrey was 54 at the time. “How old do you think I am?” he asked.

Michael guessed 40.

“He instantly became my best friend,” Big Brother Geoffrey says.

For the past three years, the two have not only been best friends, but also animal tamers, race car drivers, and brave explorers. Some of Michael’s favorite memories with Geoffrey have been the time they held a boa constrictor at his school, raced go-karts at Mel’s Funway Park, and rode the mile-long haunted hayride at Spooky World.

“It has opened my world and changed my life for the better.”

– Big Brother Geoffrey

“It has been an amazing journey so far,” Little Brother Michael says.

Michael’s grandparents enrolled him in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program because they wanted to make sure he was growing up with a good male role model and plenty of opportunities to grow.

“Geoffrey does a lot with Michael that we are not able to do,” his grandma says. “They have had so many adventures with so many more to come.”

Geoffrey knows that they can have fun adventures, but he’s also started helping Michael in school through their outings. When Michael was struggling with reading comprehension, Geoffrey got him a murder-mystery book that took place in a zoo. He made a deal with Michael.

“I promised him that if he read the entire book over the summer and could answer a few questions about the story, I would take him for a day to Franklin Park Zoo in Boston,” Geoffrey says.

With another adventure on the line, Michael began reading “Belly Up” and realized he was actually enjoying it. Throughout their outings that summer, he updated Geoffrey on how many pages he’d read, and when he turned the final page, he immediately called Geoffrey to announce he had finished.

“The result was a beautiful day at the zoo where he got to ride a camel, play with the goats in the petting zoo, and enjoy the variety of wild animals,” Geoffrey says. “It really was a terrific day celebrating his accomplishment.”

With their love for adventure and Big Brother Geoffrey’s commitment to Little Brother Michael’s success, they can expect to celebrate many more accomplishments in the future.

Big Sister Elizabeth and Little Sister Alie

Big Sister Elizabeth and Little Sister Alie

As a mother of four, a community volunteer, and an attorney, Elizabeth didn’t have a lot of free time. At a Lion’s Club event, she heard a Big Brothers Big Sisters representative speak about the need for volunteers.

“He talked about the children on the waiting list, and it nearly broke my heart,” Elizabeth says. “After some thought, I figured I had four hours a month to help, so I signed up.”

Elizabeth was matched with her first Little Sister, and the two built their relationship over five years. When her first Little Sister graduated high school, Elizabeth wanted to give her time to another young girl. She was soon matched with Little Sister Alie, whose parents signed her up to become a Little Sister because she was often bored at home, didn’t enjoy school, and struggled to make friends.

“She is part of my family.”

– Little Sister Alie

For their first outing, Elizabeth decided to take Alie to a high school basketball game. This seemingly small decision was huge to Alie. It was the first time she had ever been to a basketball game, and she was hooked.

“She introduced me to basketball, and I have loved it ever since,” Alie says.

Elizabeth began taking Alie to many sporting events to help nurture her new interest, and when Alie said she wanted to play sports instead of just watching them, Elizabeth helped her join leagues. She continued to fall in love with basketball and began playing soccer as well.

Playing sports has given Alie some of her closest friends in her teammates and also helped her gain confidence, which has transferred to the classroom. Her grades are better, she’s more enthusiastic about school, and she knows she has her Big Sister as a supporter off the court as well. Elizabeth has visited parent teacher conferences with Alie’s mom, where she’s advocated for testing to assess Alie’s reading issues. Alie has since been diagnosed with dyslexia and now has an Individualized Education Program, which she is excelling in.

“I have noticed that Alie’s attitude has changed since the beginning of the match and her grades have greatly improved,” Alie’s mom says. “Being matched with Elizabeth in the program has had a tremendous impact on Alie’s future.”

As Alie continues to be a star in school and in sports, she knows that she has her Big Sister Elizabeth who will either make time to sit in the stands with her or be in the crowd to cheer her on.

Big Brother David and Little Brother Wesley

Big Brother David and Little Brother Wesley

In 2002, when David signed up to become a Big Brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, there was a lot on his mind. Did he have the time? Would he be a good Big Brother? Could an out gay man be accepted as a mentor? Would his Little Brother or the child’s family be uncomfortable with having a mentor who was gay? All these questions swirled in his head.

What was not on his mind then was attending the Super Bowl.

In Minnesota, Big Brother David and Little Brother Wesley, who is now 25, were in the stands to watch Nick Foles and the Eagles take on Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

They won tickets because David submitted an essay to the #CreateChangeContest, and Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, chose David and Wesley’s story as one of the winners. So, they headed to Minnesota together to celebrate their match and take in the Super Bowl.

“I just, Wesley and I both, we hear about how many children are waiting for Bigs, and we wanted to tell our story to maybe inspire someone to decide to become a Big and give back,” David says.

“I just, Wesley and I both, we hear about how many children are waiting for Bigs, and we wanted to tell our story to maybe inspire someone to decide to become a Big and give back.”

– Big Brother David

Sixteen years ago, David and Wesley met for the first time. Little Brother Wesley was 9. They carved a pumpkin together – it was Wesley’s first time making a jack-o-lantern. Starting then, they met up to do projects and homework all through Wesley’s middle and high school years.

When Wesley was 13, David came out to him, feeling like it was an appropriate time. Wesley didn’t care, David says. “Kids just want your honesty and love it when you confide in them.”

Wesley confided in David when other kids at school bullied him. David was always there for him to talk about what had happened or to advocate for him at school. “I think he was sort of recognizing that he was different. He threw himself into his grades, his studies,” David says.

At one point when Wesley was in high school, he asked David to drop him off at a friend’s house. David could tell something was up. “Don’t you have something to tell me?” he asked. Wesley looked down. At that moment, Wesley felt like it was the appropriate time for him to come out to his Big, so told him that the boy was his boyfriend. “I just figured you already knew and I didn’t have to say anything,” Wesley said.

Working so hard through high school paid off. Wesley got scholarships and headed to Piedmont College in Georgia to study mass communications. He graduated and hopes to become a television reporter.

For the last year, Big Brother David has been helping his Little Brother Wesley with an even bigger project. Wesley’s sister was struggling, so Wesley took custody of his sister’s infant son, D.K. “So he’s sort of an uncle-dad and I’m sort of a grandfather,” David says. David often babysits, and his extended circle of friends have supported Wesley and D.K. as they adjust to being a little family.

The questions that David had all those years ago about whether he would be a good mentor and whether he would be accepted as a Big Brother have long disappeared, and his relationship with Wesley is simple. They are just brothers, sitting in the stands, watching a football game.

Big Sister Sam and Little Sister Alana

Big Sister Sam and Little Sister Alana

Growing up, Big Sister Sam always envisioned herself helping children when she got older.

In high school, she worked in a program where she spent time with a child with special needs every other week. She still keeps in touch with families she babysat for when she was in college.

“The desire to take care of children and help those who may not be as fortunate has been a true passion my entire life,” Sam says.

When she graduated college, she wanted to continue helping children, so she volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and was matched with Little Sister Alana.

“Spending quality time with such a beautiful young soul has brought happiness, more responsibility and maturity to my life.”

– Big  Sister Sam

Alana’s father was raising her alone, and signed her up to become a Little Sister because he wanted her to have a positive female role model.

During the first match meeting, Alana and her father felt like Sam was the “perfect” Big Sister for Alana. Sam says she felt like Alana was a “mini-me” of her.

“She seemed instantly comfortable with me, as I was with her,” Sam says. “We both shared a love for singing, acting, cooking, going to the beach, and swimming.”

In the five years they have been matched, they have gone to the beach to exercise on the boardwalk, decorated cakes at Carlos’ Bake Shop, and sung duets at karaoke. They have also embraced adventure. To celebrate a match anniversary, they went to the Delaware Water Gap to go whitewater rafting. “We got to swim in the river and we even stopped on a little island and saw baby frogs,” Alana says.

Big Sister Sam and Little Sister Alana have had fun throughout their match, but they have also accomplished a lot together. Sam helped Alana land a summer job, taught her how to open up a bank account, and explored colleges with her.

With Sam’s guidance, Alana saved enough money to buy her first car and pay her own monthly insurance.

Alana’s future looks bright. She is poised to find her own passion and graduate from college just like her Big Sister. She has a stack of acceptance letters and some big decisions ahead.

“She has given me such good advice and does all she can to help me and support me,” Alana says. “She is my best friend and I hope that she is someone that is a part of my life for a long time.”

Big Brother Tom and Little Brother Samir

Big Brother Tom and Little Brother Samir

Every child should have an adult who supports them with no strings attached.

Tom volunteered to become a Big because he wanted to give a child what he never had in his own childhood, a mentor who was there for him no matter what.

At age 10, he lost his father. The loss left a void in Tom’s life that he began to fill with mentoring figures he found in athletics. He felt blessed to have coaches’ attention, but he began to see that some of these relationships were weak.

“Looking back, I realize that the vast majority of these mentoring relationships came with strings attached, for example, my performance on the field,” Tom says. “When I stopped performing well, a lot of these relationships ceased to exist.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters gave Tom the opportunity to show a child that they didn’t have to do something exceptional for an adult to care about them.

“I wanted to show a child like me that they are deserving of a positive relationship without the pressure of trying to prove oneself,” Tom says.

“I feel like I have been friends with Tom my entire life and he is so awesome.”

– Little Brother Samir

With that goal in mind, Tom signed up to be a Big. He was matched with Little Brother Samir, who says he felt like he had been waiting his whole life for a Big Brother.

Samir’s mom adopted six of her brother’s children when he was unable to care for them. All of a sudden, Samir went from having one sister to being the youngest of eight. Samir grew up watching his older cousins with their Bigs, and he couldn’t wait to have one himself.

“The day head been played out in his little mind for quite a few years,” Samir’s mom says. “When I told him he would be matched, he screamed at the top of his lungs in excitement.”

When the day finally came, the Big Brother Tom and Little Brother connected immediately. They couldn’t stop talking. They both loved dogs, Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles, and comic books.

“From the minute we met, we became instant friends,” Tom says. “The most dynamic duo since Batman and Robin.”

Like a superhero duo, the two make a great team, but that hasn’t stop them from being competitive over the years. They debate about their hometown Steelers, battle each other in video games, and even challenge one another in the gym. Tom is a personal trainer and helps Samir lift weights and take on obstacle courses. Tom beats Samir in a lot of their head-to-head challenges, but that hasn’t extinguished Samir’s competitive fire.

“One day, I am going to be stronger than Tom and be able to do all of the awesome things I see him do to help other people,” Samir says. “One day, I am going to be able to beat him in all of the games he beats me in now.”

Despite their competitive nature, the two couldn’t be any closer. The two love playing with Tom’s dogs, Tito and Carl, have seen all the Pittsburgh spots teams play, and ramble about their passion for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Though Tom set out to show a child they didn’t have do exceptional things for an adult to care for them, he still had quite the exceptional Little in Samir.

“Whenever I make a decision, I think about what kind of example I am setting for Samir,” Tom says. “I truly believe that it was this program that enabled me to develop the quality of character that led me to my wife.”

When Tom got married, Samir walked Tom’s mom down the aisle. At the wedding, Samir’s mom cried watching her son smile and be so proud of something special for someone else. She says it’s the same smile he had when he was first matched with Tom.

Big Sister Lauren and Little Sister Shyae

Big Sister Lauren and Little Sister Shyae

When Big Sister Lauren was matched with Little Sister Shyae, they felt an instant connection. Shyae felt so comfortable around Lauren that she opted to call her “Sissy.”

“I was feeling kind of lonely before I met Lauren,” Shyae says. “I was happy to have a new friend to venture out in life with.”

Shyae’s mom signed her up to be a Little because she noticed a negative change in Shyae’s attitude in school and at home. She felt she needed someone to listen to her, give her guidance, and help boost her confidence. Luckily, around this time, a graduate student named Lauren had completed her student teaching and decided she could spend her extra time being a Big Sister. They were soon matched.

“Shyae and Lauren are the perfect match and have similar, yet unique personalities,” Shyae’s mom says. “It’s funny because their clothes often match when they get together..”

In the six years they have been matched, Lauren has made an effort to share new experiences with Shyae and help her explore her interests. The two have walked on runways at fashion shows, appeared on a live radio talk show, and sung their hearts out at a Taylor Swift concert. Together, the two have also used their match outings to overcome each other’s fears – public speaking for Lauren and heights for Shyae.

“The organization has made a Big difference in both or lives, and will for years to come.”

– Big Sister Lauren

“Shyae has now stood beside me as we have presented about the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization at numerous nonprofit events throughout greater Pittsburgh,” Lauren says. “We have also conquered her fear of heights by riding the Pittsburgh Incline and Kennywood’s highest roller coasters.”

One of Shyae’s favorite outings was an event at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh office called “Fierce Women Project.” There, she listened to inspiring women speak, and felt moved to kick-start her own little business of designing and selling jewelry.

“I named my business ‘Shyae’s Unique Jewelry,’” Shyae says.

Shyae set up “Shyae’s Unique Jewelry” tables at various events, and Lauren supported her Little Sister’s entrepreneurial efforts, often helping her pick out supplies to make her jewelry.

Over time, Shyae has transformed from a lonely, shy, girl into a confident young woman who conquers her fears, owns her own business, and excels at school.

“To me, Shyae is an artist, a stylist, and an entrepreneur,” Lauren says. “She’s a snapshot of today’s youth, and I just so happen to be lucky enough to call her my Little Sister.”

Lauren should probably add “poet” to that list of words describing Shyae. Recently, Shyae’s teacher asked Shyae to write a poem, and she chose to write about Lauren. She encapsulated the beauty of their relationship in eight lines:

“Ode to My Sissy”

Thanks for supporting me, even when I am wrong
Thanks for protecting me, and making me strong
Thanks for soothing me with love, when I am down
Thanks for making me smile, and wiping my frowns
Thanks for watching out for me, when things don’t seem fine
Thanks for pulling me up, when I am out of line
Thanks for playing perfectly, my sister’s role
I will always love you, from my heart and soul.