I have been a big sister for 20 years now. Having younger (and older) siblings is simply one of the best parts of my life. I feel sorry for only children, and will never deprive my future children of having siblings. While I have been and will always be a big sister, I experienced a different type of sisterhood from 2008-2009. If you are thinking this is going to be a story about being a “big” in a sorority, you are dead wrong. The only thing I dislike more than sorority’s are girls who constantly refer to their sorority sisters as big, little, grandma, or auntie…ugh. (No offense to past, current, or future sorority girls, it just isn’t for me).
In 2008 I was living in Tampa feeling lonely, bored, and worthless. I spent my days watching hours of Gossip Girl, only taking breaks to reluctantly attend my hostessing job at a prestigious restaurant. I longed to volunteer in the community, to help make a difference in somebody’s life. I figured increasing somebody else’s quality of life through service might help do the same to mine. After learning that thousands of children in Tampa were living without one or both parents due to incarceration, I knew exactly where I wanted to volunteer.
Within two weeks of applying to be a “big sister” in a program for children of incarcerated parents, I was assigned a mentee. For her privacy’s sake, I’ll call her Kara. I was so excited to meet Kara. I dreamt of all the things we could do together, the bond we would form. I pictured us going to the zoo, baseball games, the mall, movies, and cooking together. I imagined that we would have long deep talks about how she is coping with her family’s situation and I would be able to offer advice and a shoulder to cry on. I hoped she would learn to trust me, and I her. I selfishly imagined her mother meeting me for the first time and holding me in her arms, thanking me for acting as a mentor to her “at risk” teenager.
In reality, our first meeting consisted of me sitting awkwardly in Kara’s living room with her mother and sister. We stared at each other as ambulance sirens and muffled sounds of neighbors fighting leaked through the paper-thin walls. This neighborhood was one I had always avoided, even in the daytime. Now, sitting here at night while it poured rain outside felt especially foreboding. The scenario I had created in my head of what this first meeting would be like was quickly shattered; Kara’s mother glared at me for 30 minutes straight, a smile and a bear hug the furthest things from her mind. I kept wanting to ask “you signed your daughter up for this program, why are you treating me like an invader in your home?!” In hindsight, of course they treated me like that. All they knew was betrayal and abuse.
I consider myself to be an above average conversationalist, but this was brutal. I would ask questions and receive one word answers. The three women stared at me as though I had just crawled out of the sewage drain and was asking for tea and crumpets. The only talking Kara’s mother did was to repeatedly tell me all the ways in which Kara had been abused her whole life- with Kara sitting between us. I was heartbroken. I wanted to grab Kara and run far away from this devastation. She was 15 years old and her mother was relentless.
Kara and I had a rocky start to our relationship. I felt that her family viewed me as someone they could easily take advantage of. It even went as far as her mother asking me for money. Kara was your typical self-absorbed teenager, only with a lot more baggage than most teenagers (or adults) ever have to deal with. She was blunt, honest, and sometimes downright rude. On multiple occasions I had to nearly scold her, tell her she couldn’t talk to people the way she did. For example, one day I picked her up to go on an outing and she greeted me with: “Courtney, you look like you got kind of fat. Have you gained weight? I’ve been going to the gym, I lost weight.” It was so hard for my brain to comprehend that yeah, she is a bratty teenage girl but she has also seen and experienced things I cannot imagine. She is not trying to be difficult or insulting, she simply does not know better. She never learned manners or social normalities from her mother. All I had to do was spend 10 minutes with her mother and suddenly I was thinking “how is she not more screwed up?!”
I’m not going to lie, there were a lot of days when I would ask myself why I had done this. Why had I decided to adopt a “little sis” when my life itself could have used some repair. Days where I spent money on football tickets because she wanted to go to a game and 10 minutes into it she wanted to leave. Days where I would drive her all around town and she would text or chat on her cell phone the whole time in a language I barely recognized (teenager+mumbling). The time she told me the best way to get money from the government was to try and get fired from my job because then they’ll pay you unemployment and you can stay at home. I promise you she didn’t come up with that gem of an idea on her own.
But then there were the days that made it all worth it, ones I know she will never forget, because I won’t either. One day I suggested we make cookies. I set out the ingredients and she asked while looking through my fridge “where’s the cookie dough?” I laughed and said “we’re going to make it, silly.” She looked at me with complete confusion and innocence, she didn’t know what I meant. I realized she had never made cookies before, she didn’t know you could make cookies from scratch. In her mind cookies were only available in perfectly cylindrical, 6-inch, refrigerated tubes. It broke my heart to think that this 15-year old girl had never actually baked cookies with her mother, aunt, or grandma. Not having baked cookies may not seem like a big deal, but to me it was very symbolic. It’s easy to forget that not every child experiences the comfort of a warm and nurturing home life.
Another time we went to the Air Force Base to visit my dad at work and give Kara a tour of the base. Afterward, dad took us through the McDonald’s drive thru to get us ice cream. She was beyond excited and whispered in my ear “why is he doing this?” I asked her what she meant and she asked “does he always do things like this? He is just getting us ice cream for no reason?” She was slightly embarrassed, but smiling from ear to ear. I nodded yes and had to turn my head to hide my suddenly tear-filled eyes. How many times had my dad bought me ice cream, clothes, a souvenir from the gift shop at his job for absolutely no reason? Hundreds? Thousands? Kara had never experienced this type of love. An ordinary ice cream run to me was a momentous occasion to her. In many ways, I think the relationship she developed with my dad and mom was far more important than anything I could have done for her. In me she had a buddy, someone to drive her around and help her with schoolwork. In my parents, she had adult role models. Possibly for the first time in her life, she experienced platonic love and trust from a man, my dad.
Kara and I still talk sometimes, although not as much as I wish we would. After moving away from Tampa in 2009, she told me she was assigned a new “big sis”. She assured me she was definitely not as much fun as I was and plus, “her name is all ghetto and stuff.” Kara’s mom has even called me a few times just to catch up! Being a mentor to an underprivileged teenage girl was an experience I am thankful to have had. While she never cried on my shoulder and I still don’t know why her dad is in jail, we learned things from each other. Real life things that can’t be taught or explained unless you experience them for yourself. Kara and I were fortunate enough to get a taste of what life is like in a world completely foreign to your own. Our lives could not have been more different, yet we managed to work through our issues, become friends, and have a life changing year together.
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