Every year, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America chooses two volunteer mentors (called ‘Bigs’) and two youth (called ‘Littles’) out of nearly 280,000 in the mentoring program nationwide, as the Bigs and Littles of the Year. This year the top honor goes to: Big Sister Julie and Little Sister Karma, from Big Brothers Big Sisters Kansas City, and Big Brother Mark and Little Brother Eric from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh. Traditionally, the four are honored during an awards gala during the Big Brothers Big Sisters Bigger Together National Conference. But due to COVID-19, they were formally announced during a public virtual celebration event.
Big Sister Julie and Little Sister Karma – Big Brothers Big Sisters Kansas City
When 16-year-old Karma thinks about her future plans, studying psychology and interior design are on the top of her to do list. And along with Karma’s aunt and other family members, there’s someone else who will be cheering her on—her Big Sister Julie.
Julie, a third grade teacher, and Karma were matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters Kansas City in June in 2017. Both will tell you they’re more on the quiet side but have bonded over their love of ice cream! Two months after their first meeting, just when they were getting to know one another and connect, Karma was in a tragic accident. A drunk driver collided head on into the car Karma was riding in, killing her mother and injuring her sister.
Karma was in a coma for 8 days, in the hospital for 99 days.
And Julie was there and has been, ever since.
“I remember leaving the hospital and sitting in my car crying at just how proud of Karma I was thinking how strong this young girl is,” said Julie. “She’s resilient, she’s brave, she never complains.”
The most challenging time of their lives brought them closer together.
From country music concerts to whipping up dessert masterpieces in the kitchen, the two haven’t missed a beat. Karma’s putting her creative side to work as the official glass designer for Julie’s wedding favors. And the reason she wants to pursue a career in psychology is to help others, the same way it helped her.
“My Big Sister has taught me how to be more open,” said Karma. “And I hope what Julie has learned from me is to keep fighting even when the odds look like they are against you.”
Big Brother Mark and Little Brother Eric – Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh
“My Big Brother Mark helped me redirect the sadness that I had after the loss of my dad. Mark turned the light back on in my heart.”
Little Brother Eric was just 7-years-old when his father passed away. His aunt reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh hoping that a mentor would be someone Eric could open up to and trust, and he found that in Mark, who works in community affairs at a local bank. In fifth grade, Eric invited Mark to his school for ‘Take Your Father to School Day’ and when his classmates questioned Eric and Mark’s connection to one another since they weren’t the same race, Eric simply replied, he’s ‘My Big Brother’.
The conversations surrounding race aren’t as simple when you’re in high school.
In 2020, during Eric’s junior year, in addition to the normal stressors of classwork, Eric was coping with the pandemic, family members who died from COVID-19, the challenges of social distancing, and the racial unrest across the country. In fact, Eric witnessed several racial incidents at his school. Mark was there to listen, sometimes not knowing exactly what to say, but to offer support as an ally, attending forums and meetings surrounding the difficult conversations about racism. What Eric appreciated the most is that Mark never pretended to understand the struggles Eric faced as a young Black man, but was there to learn and grow, too. “Eric has become a young leader in the fight for racial justice,” said Mark. “I look up to him in more ways than I ever thought I would.”
When Eric heads to college, he’ll play football, but his ultimate goal is to become a math teacher. He’ll have more than basic math facts to share with his students. He wants to remind kids what his 10-year plus friendship—now brotherhood–with Mark has taught him: “You don’t have to be alike to be a great Big/Little match, learning to understand each other’s views can be a good thing and trust is the hurdle to get over it, to make it work.”