Q&A: Big Sister of the Year making a positive impact on youth
Bonnie Walters and her “little sister” Jessica love to get manicures, shop and eat out together. They also make time for some necessary conversations.
“We discuss school and her grades, boys and what she should be doing and not doing,” said Walters.
That mentorship of Jessica, 11, which began in June 2016, just earned Walters the honor of being named Big Sister of the Year by the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ohio State Association. She was nominated by James Salzman, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Athens County, which serves Athens, Meigs, Vinton and Washington counties.
The two are a perfect match, both say.
“The first time I saw her sweet little face I knew we were going to be great friends,” said Walters.
Jessica describes her “big sister” as “awesome, nice and amazing” in an essay for the organization, and is heartened by Walter’s devotion to the relationship.
“She just went through cancer and she still made time to see me,” she said about Walter’s recent battle with lymphoma.
Walters said she hopes her award will encourage more local residents to become mentors through the program. Some of the children in Washington County have been on a waiting list for more than a year, said Willa O’Neill, match support specialist for Washington County, and there is an especially urgent need for male volunteers.
Question: How did you get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters?
Answer: I retired and just work a couple of hours a week in the office now and was looking for something to do. I wanted to volunteer. I actually heard about it from a commercial. I like kids and I thought it would be great. It just clicked with me.
Q: How long did it take to get matched with someone?
A: A couple of months, although I know they have a waiting list a mile long now (of little brothers and sisters waiting for a volunteer).
Q: I’m sure people sometimes worry about the first meeting being awkward. What was it like for the two of you?
A: Well, she’s very outgoing. I was very nervous but we sat around the kitchen table at her grandmother’s house and Willa introduced us and we talked for a few minutes. I think I knew and she knew. In the first half hour, we were asked if we thought this would work and we both said yes.
Q: What’s Jessica’s personality like?
A: She’s very girly which I like. I think that’s why we get along so well. She loves clothes, shoes, nails and thinks boys are icky. She needs someone to give her a little push sometimes. She’s not always big on school. I try to encourage her. I tell her how important it is to be focused and try to help her be everything she can be.
Q: Since you started your relationship, have you seen some improvements in that area?
A: Yes, because she knows that if she gets bad grades or she lies then she doesn’t get to see me that weekend. We’ve never had to do that but she knows those are the rules that her grandma and I have.
Q: Do you get to see her every weekend?
A: Usually. If not, every other weekend. She’s also stayed with us. She spent Christmas Eve here with us and our kids and opened gifts with us and had dinner with us. She’s a big part of the family now.
Q: What are some of the challenges she’s had in her life?
A: Her mom has been in and out of jail. She’s been with her grandma a lot of the time. And every time her mom gets out and then goes back in, it’s a disappointment. I tell her that it doesn’t mean that her mom is a bad person, just that she has a problem. I try to tell her that the best thing right now is for her to focus on herself. We all try to mentor her. She loves Rick (Walters, Washington County commissioner). She loves going to the courthouse when he’s there.
Q: Obviously, there are a lot of benefits for the children being mentored. Have you found that there are a lot of benefits for you, too?
A: Absolutely. I look forward to seeing her. I never had kids. I have stepkids and this is giving me something I missed. I never had a little girl to go shopping with or go bowling with or all the things we do. She’s giving me as much back as I’m giving her.
Q: Some people might worry about the time commitment involved. Do you think even a minimal time is beneficial?
A: Even a couple hours a week can really help for these kids that don’t have their parents around. They need that mentorship so badly.
Q: When did you find out you were named “Big” of the year? What was that process?
A: I found out two weeks ago. The director in Athens nominated me for this and then Jessica and I both wrote essays about our experience that go to a board.
Q: Was Jessica excited to hear that you won?
A: Yes. We had some pictures taken and she had a blast.
Q: I’ve heard that she’s been very supportive as you’ve been battling cancer.
A: I’m in remission now. Every time I was in for chemo, she called me. If I was too sick to see her, we would talk on the phone. She told me if I lost my hair, then she would cut hers or we would get matching bandannas.
Q: Do you see this is a lifelong relationship, even when she’s no longer a child?
A: Absolutely. I’ve told her I hope to be there when she’s walking down the aisle and graduating from college.
Kate York conducted this interview.
¯ Residence: Coal Run.
¯ Family: Husband, Rick, three stepchildren, one grandson, 12.
¯ Honor: Named Big Sister of the Year in Ohio.
How to get involved
¯ Washington County is served by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Athens County.
¯ Contact the Athens office at 740-797-0037 or visit bbbsathens.org
¯ Contact Washington County match support specialist Willa O’Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org