Big and Little- The path to self discovery through helping others

Four years ago, I made a great decision. I had been seeing ads on the ctrain and buses for mentoring, and I finally decided that instead of just thinking about becoming a mentor I would actually figure out how to be one. So I went to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and area, and started the process to becoming a volunteer mentor. It’s a lengthy process, and for good reason- you are in charge of a child for the time that you have designated together, and I think it’s fair to say that any child especially one who comes from an unstable or broken home is impressionable. At the time when I began the process, I didn’t even truly understand what being a mentor meant. I figured it was a little like teaching or tutoring, to be honest. All I knew was that being a child had been tough for me, and it would have been nice to have an outsider who I could trust and talk to without all of the obligations and drama that come from within a family. So I set out to complete the process and wait for them to match me with a ‘Little’ (the term fondly used for the children in matches; I was referred to as a ‘Big’).

Initially they interviewed me, asked me about my motivations and reasons for wanting to become a volunteer, why I wanted to work with children and more about myself as a person. After a police check and references check, I got to sit down with a coordinator for a lengthier and slightly intense interview. In order to establish that I was a stable and appropriate mentor the coordinator asked me about everything- from my own childhood, to my current social, financial and personal stability. Then there was an orientation process whereby they described the mentoring process and went through what potential teaching opportunities we might come across in terms of safety, relationships, self esteem and self worth. We were given information on the typical story that brings a child and their family to access the Big Brother Big Sister program. We were also made aware of the immense support network available to us, and of the importance of developing healthy boundaries between the Big, the Little, the family, and the coordinator. Finally, I was matched with an incredible 12 year old girl who I was able to continue mentoring until shortly after she turned 15. Their matching system is so thorough that it seemed as if we really could have been siblings- we had so much in common and our interests were (age appropriately, of course) similar enough so that there was never a lack of activities for us to do. I was fortunate that the first match they found for me was so compatible- however they make it quite clear that if one or both parties aren’t completely sure of continuing with the match that they prefer and actually insist on continuing to look for more suitable pairings. This benefits the mentor and especially the mentee, for whom the experience is so important.

There has been support for me since the very beginning of this process- since the interview itself. The coordinators who provide their support, guidance and supervision of the match are genuine, kind, and fiercely protective of the matches they set up. They want the mentors and mentees both to succeed, and that made a world of difference, especially for a first time mentor like me. There are many different types of matches that they can set up for volunteers, and the varying options are great because not everybody can commit one day a week for an entire year to do a traditional Big/Little Match. My friend is a Big Brother and he does a recreation-only match with his Little; another friend goes to the school of the child and hangs out with them there.

My Little and I have shared some amazing experiences together. We got to participate in activities that perhaps I never would have done myself but that were so enriching, enlivening and helped me to connect simultaneously with both my inner child and my inner mentor. In order to enrich our mutual love of cooking and food, we spent our first match day cooking homemade pizza with a twist- her idea was to create coloured dough and it was so much fun! We went to food tastings, movies, amusement parks, go karting, bowling, climbing, stampeding, arcade, various ethnic restaurants, and the simplest but most elegant of all: window shopping at the mall. All the while, I saw a sometimes troubled pre-teen emerge into a sophisticated, mature and insightful person who ultimately had more to teach me than I could ever teach her. The entire experience of connecting with another person simply for the sake of the rewarding social support that you could provide (and eventually that they might even provide for you) was eye opening for me and left an imprint on me that will guide my future as both a sister, friend, woman, and future mother. For all of the time I tried to be an upstanding role model, kind and non judgmental ear, and understanding friend for my Little, she was equally a little sister and friend to me. By choosing to volunteer my time and help another I eventually discovered just how much I helped myself.

For information on Big Brothers Big Sisters in Calgary, visit their website

For general information on volunteering in Calgary, simply google “volunteer [your city name]” J