After spending years in foster care, Little Sister Jennifer began living with her mom again. It was a tough transition, and her mom knew Jennifer needed someone else in her corner. She signed her up to become a Little Sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona, and that decision changed the entire trajectory of Jennifer’s life.
“Early on in childhood, I experienced repeated trauma and frequent instability due to caregiver mental illness and growing up in a family struggling with poverty,” Jennifer says.
Those adverse childhood experiences left Jennifer dealing with extreme anxiety when she faced unfamiliar situations. She had an especially hard time meeting new people and going to new places. She spent a lot of time stuck in their small apartment. “To cope, I kept my inner thoughts close to the vest, preferring to immerse myself in books instead of interacting with people,” she said.
“It’s not the mentor’s role to fix everything or do everything for them, but to share opportunities with them.”
– Little Sister Jennifer
All that began to change when she was matched with Big Sister Michelle.
Michelle was new to Arizona when she first volunteered to become a Big Sister. She saw an ad for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona in the newspaper, ripped it out, and stuck it to her refrigerator. “It was one of my goals, when I got to a point in my life to make that commitment, to become a Big Sister,” she says.
Jennifer was slow to trust because of the challenges she had faced in her childhood, and Michelle was patient with her.
“I would stare out the window during our long car rides, lost in thought,” Jennifer says. “I struggled to come up with something that seemed worthy of breaking the silence. But Michelle never pushed. She asked questions about school, my home life, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and gave me all the time I needed to open up.”
Michelle says. “I wanted to project that I was not going to cause Jennifer any further pain. I was going to be steady and constant, and no matter what she shared with me, I wasn’t going to judge her.”
Through high school, Jennifer began to rely on her Big Sister for support and advice. Eventually, Michelle pushed Jennifer to get an after-school job. Jennifer was still experiencing anxiety and shyness around strangers, and Michelle thought a job would help. “I knew that it would expose her to other things and new people,” Michelle says.
Jennifer wasn’t sure about the job at first. Would she be okay, outside her comfort zone? She agreed to try.
Michelle was right–Jennifer loved it.
“I really enjoyed working. It was a way to take myself out of the day-to-day routine,” Jennifer says. “I came to find out that I’m a people person.”
When Jennifer graduated high school, Michelle was still there, steady and constant, for her to lean on. It was Michelle who took her to college orientation, answered her questions on what college would be like, and told her what she would need on her first day.
Now, 18 years after they first became Big Sister and Little Sister, Jennifer and Michelle are still close. Michelle encouraged Jennifer to embrace all that college had to offer, coached her through the decision to study abroad in France, and attended her wedding as an honored guest. They consider one another family.
“Without judgment, Michelle is there for me,” Jennifer says, “in happy moments, like the wedding, and in the really tough moments, too.”