By Mallory Schlabach, Editor in Chief
The seven-week-old puppy named Lucky yips from behind a scooter on the porch as Maria del Pinal knocks on the door of a white house. A young girl opens the door and squeals are heard as her sister runs to her room to get dressed.
“Oh, my goodness, I forgot you were coming today; Angelica is so excited you’re here,” says the girl’s mom as she clears the dinner dishes from the kitchen table and yells down the hall, “Hurry up Angelica, your Big Sister is here.”
It’s just around dinnertime, but Angelica, already dressed in her pajamas, quickly dresses to meet her “Big Sister.”
The 10-year old shyly leaves her room and a smile creeps across her face when she sees Maria sitting on the couch across from her older sister.
Maria and Angelica became friends two years ago when they were matched through Wildcat Kids, a program through Big Brothers Big Sisters for ACU students that matches two Bigs to a Little. Maria’s sister, Cristina, is Angelica’s other match.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a nationwide, non-profit organization with a branch in Abilene, involved in the one-on-one mentoring of children between the ages of 6 to 18.
Tim Yandell, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters since last August said last year alone more than 1,200 children were served through one of Big Brother Big Sisters’ seven mentoring programs.
Maria was one of those matches.
“I wanted to get involved with the community when I came to ACU, so my sister Cristina and I joined Wildcat Kids because we love working with kids,” said Maria, senior communication major from Fort Worth.
Yandell, an ACU alumni, said research from both Abilene’s branch and the nationwide Big Brothers Big Sisters, shows that when a child is matched with a mentor, everyone involved benefits.
“The child makes better grades, is less disruptive in class, his attendance improves, and for young ladies, they are less likely to become pregnant,” he said.
Children enroll in Big Brothers Big Sisters for many reasons. Often a parent or guardian will enroll a child in a specific program. Other times educators and administrators in the Abilene Independent School District refer a child.
Angelica joined Big Brothers Big Sisters so she would do something besides watch TV after school, said Monica, her mom.
“I wanted someone to hang out with and have fun with,” Angelica says quietly, as she twists her fingers in circles and drops her eyes to the fly flitting across the wooden floorboards.
Children want to be matched up with someone older than them because they think its cool to have a “Big;” they enjoy hanging out and just being with someone other than their parents or guardian, Yandell said.
Maria said many of the things the trio does are events that Wildcat Kids sponsors, like the Costume Skate Night they went to last week.
It’s the first thing Angelica mentions when she talks about all the fun things she does with the college-aged girls.
Angelica dressed as a witch with neon green eye shadow and red lipstick, while Maria and Cristina, junior international business major from Fort Worth, wore poodle skirts, Maria said. “That was such a fun night; I actually remembered how to skate.”
“That girl loves to run and she loves to skate,” says her mom with a laugh as she listens from across the room.
Angelica shows Maria the plastic pink shoe attached to her tennis shoes that represents her achievements in physical education class at her school where she’s a fifth-grader.
Lucky barks from outside just as Angelica explains that when she grows up she’ll be a veterinarian. Puppies are her favorite animals, she says.
“Both of these girls,” Monica says of Angelica and her sister Brianna, “are good with pets. When Angelica was just four or five years old, she found a baby blue jay and took care of it because its mother abandoned it.
“I thought it would die because it needed worms and stuff, but Angelica and her sister actually went out and dug up worms to feed that bird. When it got old enough it flew to the tree where she found it, but it came back every now and then to our porch. Man, they hated to see it fly away.”
Angelica simply smiles and nods her head, her cheeks flushing pink with what her mom is saying and a small dimple appears on her right cheek.
“My favorite thing about her is her smile,” Maria says, watching Angelica scrunch up her face and plug her ears, so as not to hear. “She is so genuine and smiles because she truly means it.”
Although Angelica is often shy and doesn’t say a lot at once, Maria said they’ve had good talks about girl things and life.
“Angelica absorbs us like a sponge, in the way we walk, talk and act around each other,” Maria said. “We are big heroes to a little kid; it’s weird to think about that. It makes you think, ‘What did I do?’ Nothing spectacular, yet she thinks I am someone special.”
Maria said she and Cristina have talked to Angelica about boys and being strong, even at age 10.
“We’ve explained what the purity rings are that Cristy and I wear, and how important it is to tell boys no and mean it,” she said. “We’ve also taken her to ACU and talked about doing well in school and that she can go to college one day like us.”
For Maria, being a mentor means being a friend and having fun.
Angelica’s favorite memory that she’s had with Maria and Cristina is when they rode together on the Big Brothers Big Sisters float in the West Texas Fair and Rodeo Parade in September.
“We all dressed as cowgirls and wore cowgirl hats that Big Brothers Big Sisters gave us. We even taught Angelica how to wave like a princess to all the people we passed,” she says with a laugh as Maria and Angelica demonstrate the wave to Angelica’s mom and sister across the room.
“We’re not exactly alike, but Angelica reminds Cristina and I to value the little things in life and to have fun,” Maria said. “She reminds me a lot of when I was her age; it’s important to take time to be a kid again.”
Yandell said this is common for “bigs” to come to this realization.
“Often the “little” ends up teaching you a whole lot about life too, not just the “Big” teaching the child,” he said.
Angelica’s mom said it’s nice to have someone else teaching her child and being an influence.
“The program has been really good for both of my girls, I’d like to think the mentors can teach them something that maybe I can’t teach, or reinforce something I’m trying to teach,” Monica said. “You know all kids think their parents don’t know anything, and mine are no different.”
Having someone mentor a child gives the parent or guardian a support system. It allows them to get things done or have a quiet time to themselves, Yandell said.
“I hear it can even make the difference in them making it or not in life, when they can depend on someone else to care for and love on their child. The mentor becomes like family to the child and her family.”
While Angelica and her older sister live with their mom, her husband, their grandma and great grandma, most of the children enrolled in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program come from single parent or guardian homes, Yandell said. One-third come from families with a parent in prison.
Boys to Men
Jeremy Cox, senior family studies major from Houston, joined Big Brothers Big Sisters two years ago and was matched with Xavier Johnson, who is now a 12-year-old. Jeremy wanted to meet young people; Xavier needed to stay out of trouble.
Jeremy said when he first met Xavier, that he was incredibly shy. Today, he has loosened up a bit, but grows quiet if he doesn’t know someone.
“When I first met Xavier, he would clam up when we would hang out and so I worked to bring him out of his shell,” Jeremy said. “He is still shy today, but he is comfortable around me and will speak up and goof off some.”
When the two sit side by side they seem like polar opposites.
Xavier quietly sits in an iron chair sipping a strawberry latte. He thinks hard about how he and Jeremy are similar. Stumped, he shrugs his shoulder and gives Jeremy a look from the corner of his eye, signaling him to answer.
“Well,” Jeremy begins slowly, laughing at Xavier’s quietness. “We’re both good with the ladies,” he jokes. “Ha. And, we are both tall for our ages, I mean I was as tall as him when I was 12 and that wasn’t normal compared to the other kids.”
At five-foot-eight, Xavier stands above the other sixth-graders at Clack Elementary. His height, he hopes, will help him make it to the NFL one day.
Xavier said his dream is to play professional football.
“Any team’s OK; it don’t matter who I play for,” he says earnestly, although he did say the Indianapolis Colts is his favorite team.
On a serious note, Jeremy said he and Xavier are alike because they were both raised by single mothers and come from similar family backgrounds.
“We share core characteristics and are different in enough ways and with interests that we balance and challenge each other,” Jeremy said. “But one difference is I’m a lot goofier than he is; I think I embarrass him a lot, even when we drive around Abilene.”
Xavier nods his head emphatically while grinning, his giant smile appearing before he chews on his straw again.
“We can be in the car driving by ourselves and he gives me this look, like I’m crazy for dancing and singing in the car,” Jeremy laughs. “There’s no one to notice, but he still shakes his head at me and laughs.”
Xavier starts to laugh again but covers his face when Jeremy begins to tell a story about him acting goofy.
“Oh, man; don’t tell her that,” he laughs.
“I came to pick Xavier up and knocked on the door but no one answered so I walked in. Xavier was standing in the living room with a stereo to his ear dancing and signing with his eyes closed,” Jeremy laughs. “I think I’m rubbing off on him.”
The joking is good for Xavier. He said it’s the thing he likes most about Jeremy.
“Xavier and I have a relationship that is fun; I am there to be another consistent person in his life.”
He said sometimes he worries because he doesn’t always know what to do when he arrives at Xavier’s house.
“I worry that he won’t like what we do or won’t want to go somewhere,” Jeremy said, “but as soon as he gets in the car he reassures me that I’m doing OK; I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
The pair goes to concerts and plays, eat out sometimes and likes to race each other.
Xavier runs track at school and has placed first several times in the 50 and 100-meter races.
“I’m really proud of him for running; he’s pretty fast though,” Jeremy said.
Yandell joined Big Brothers Big Sisters because he knew the organization had a good program.
“I know what we do at Big Brothers Big Sisters makes a positive impact for good on the lives of children. We’re making a difference in the kids in the community,” he said.
In addition to joining the staff, he also became a “big” because he wanted to give back to a child.
“Children matter so much. We owe it to kids to help them make right decisions in life,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be raised by a single parent; and I know the grief a child suffers. It’s hard to be a kid.”
Yandell’s mother abandoned his father, brother and him before he turned 2 years old.
“Back in the 60s it was unheard of to be raised by a single parent, much less your father,” he said. “Today it is so prevalent to be raised in single parent homes; mentoring relationships make all the difference in the world.”
He said that while the majority of “bigs” come from college-aged students, high school students and retired adults or grandparents, many come from parents and middle-age adults in the community like him.
Yandell’s “little brother” is an 8-year-old named Colton who is being raised by his grandmother after his mother was killed in a drunk driving accident last year.
Yandell recalls the first time he brought Colton to ACU.
As the pair walked through the Campus Center after school, Colton looked around at all the people moving through and pulled on Yandell’s sleeve.
“What is this place?” he asked.
Smiling, Yandell responded, “Well, what do you think it is Colton?”
After much deliberation, Colton said, “Well it’s way too big to be a high school, so I don’t know.”
Yandell said that was the first of many conversations the two have had about college, and that he told Colton he wants to see him attend ACU when he graduates one day.
Yandell and Colton are a community-based match; the most popular program Big Brothers Big Sisters offers is the lunch buddy program, though, he said.
He said people feel they can commit to 30 minutes a week, easier than several hours a month.
Some don’t join Big Brothers Big Sisters though because they feel they are too busy or don’t have money. Yandell said there are no excuses.
“When you talk about having no time, every person in Abilene can spend 30 minutes a week to be a lunch buddy,” he said. “We also have match activities available in the community for very cheap and to be honest, the most meaningful times you spend doing things are the ones where it doesn’t cost a thing, like taking a “little” to campus or going to a park.
“It doesn’t cost any money to go to campus, to skip rocks in a stream or to play in the GATA fountain,” he says with a laugh.
Walking through campus, Yandell said Colton ran towards the GATA fountain when he saw it for the first time.
“He sprinted out to it and immediately began taking of his shoes and socks and rolling up his pants,” he recalled. “Both of us were walking around in the fountain splashing each other because you know, once you stick your big toe on one of those spickets in the fountain, you can spray water everywhere,” he laughed.
Sopping wet and bare foot, the two began to play catch in the grass with Colton’s dirty socks rolled up, he said.
“I called his grandma and said I think Colton and I are in trouble,” he said. “She laughed and asked why. When I explained it was because we were soaking wet, she laughed again and said Colton wasn’t in trouble, but that she couldn’t speak for my wife.”
Yandell said he tells people about his experiences with Colton because he wants others to see they can do it too.
Because students begin school in the fall and college students return to Abilene in August, Yandell said the fall is the busiest time for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Despite a flood of responses from students, several hundred children in Abilene still await matches.
“To give to a child,” Yandell said. “All you have to remember is that you were once a kid.”