Every Christmas I experience nostalgia when I hear Santa Clause is Comin to Town by Bruce Springsteen. It takes me back to a time and place (1998 at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania) that had such a profound impact on my life. I was 12 years old and at a college party. This wasn’t a keg stand kind of party though, it was a cookie baking, gift exchanging kind of party.
I was what they called a “Little” in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. My mom was a single parent, working 40 hours per week and taking classes at a community college over an hour away from our house. She sacrificed so much for my brother and me to have a roof over our heads, food on the table, and new clothes at the start of every school year. But work and school demanded so much of her time, that she felt like we needed mentors to literally and figuratively guide us in the right direction. So, she enrolled us in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
I was assigned to a college senior named LeAnn. She helped me with homework, taught me how to play tennis, took me swimming, treated me to the ice cream parlor, watched movies with me, and most importantly in my 12 year old mind, she let me hang out in her dorm room. This experience inspired me to do well in school because I knew that I wanted to go to college!
I kept in touch with LeAnn during my high school years, but once I left for college we lost connection. A few years ago I tried searching for her, but to no avail. So I decided that in lieu of being able to thank her for the profound impact she had on my life, I chose to pay it forward. I applied to be a Big Sister.
When I originally contacted the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program the demand for mentors was high but the supply was low. There were hundreds of kids needing a role model, but so few adults volunteered. Once I started the application process I quickly realized why there were so few; it was rigorous and time consuming. There was a lengthy paper application, background checks, a home visit, and an in-person interview, all of which I think are necessary when placing adults in a supervisory role over minors. But, I think it deters many people from getting involved.
In the spring of 2013 I was assigned to a “Little” named Ileana. She was a petite 12 year old with a Latino and African American ethnicity. Her father had been incarcerated for attempted murder and her mother was raising three children alone. Ileana had two younger brothers: Angel, age 2, and Ali, age 6. She was inadvertently the caretaker when their mother was out of the house, which caused a lot of undue stress for this pre-teen.
The first time I met with Ileana I asked her to write down a list of things that she wanted to do that year. She drew a picture of a sun and ocean waves on that piece of paper and wrote two words: THE BEACH. And that was when I knew we would have a special relationship. We made a schedule to meet every other week throughout the summer, including a few beach trips. The first trip was on July 4th, 2013. I picked her and her brother up early so that we could beat the holiday traffic. As we walked down Rehoboth Avenue and approached the boardwalk, their excitement became visible and audible. It was the first time either of them had ever seen the ocean. They dropped their towels, shed their shirts and shoes, and headed straight for the water. It was a moment I will never forget. This picture speaks a thousand proverbial words.
We made several more trips to the beach that summer. In the fall I surprised her at school with a huge plastic pumpkin filled with candy to celebrate her birthday (which happens to fall on Halloween). She later told me that her classmates were envious! During that winter we went to the movies, baked cookies, and shopped. Over Christmas break I took her to New York City to see the big tree at Rockefeller Center. We ate at a restaurant with cloth napkins and she was intrigued; the only restaurant she had ever been to was McDonalds. As we toured Time Square she was in awe of the lights, the skyscrapers, and the bustling crowds. All she ever knew was a small town in central Delaware where she moved from one tiny apartment to another. It was like she saw the world for the first time.
We continued to meet at least once per month for the next few years. I tried my best to be there for her when her mother took the two boys and moved away, leaving Ileana to fend for herself. She spent those years moving back and forth from her grandmother’s house in northern Delaware to an aunt’s house in Maryland, and even spent a few years in Wisconsin with another distant relative. Eventually, she moved back to the east coast, where she started the pursuit of a college degree. However, she had to put those plans on hold when she found out she was pregnant.
She currently has a one year old baby boy named Zeke. She sends me pictures and calls once a month with updates. She is taking online classes while working full time so that she can provide for her son. I hope that someday she has the means to come to visit me in slower lower Delaware so that we can recreate that magical 4th of July weekend that happened almost a decade ago. Just as that Bruce Springsteen song makes me nostalgic at Christmas time, so does hitting the waves and watching fireworks every 4th of July. I think of my “Little” Ileana and hope that she valued our relationship as much as I did.