Taking Risks: Audrey and Lizzet

Sometimes it’s something as simple as going ice skating that reveals and releases the inner potential of a child. Big Sister Audrey made that discovery when she took her Little Sister Lizzet to the local ice skating rink to experience an activity she’d enjoyed as a child. She saw Lizzet’s “can-do attitude” overcome uncertainty and help her skate across the ice without help.

“She’s such a great kid. She’s so curious about things in life,” said Audrey, who’s only been matched with Lizzet for a couple of months. “On one of our first outings we went to Starbucks because as an 8-year-old she’s very grown up and thinks she drinks coffee. So, we sat down and made a list of a lot of things we wanted to do. Ice skating is something I wanted to show her and Lizzet was excited to try.”

Lizzet’s willingness to try new things made the experience particularly meaningful for both of them. “Thank goodness that curiosity stuck with her even after she’d been struggling to learn to skate for almost an hour,” Audrey said.

The rink has a wide section at one end where there are no handrails to hang onto and skaters must venture across the ice on their own, or try to hang onto the wall or a helper. “The first few times we crossed that part Lizzet was nervous and held onto my hand the whole way, which frankly I just loved because she is the cutest,” Audrey laughed.

After that, Lizzet would let go of her Big Sister’s hand, fall, get help to get back up, and go again. “Finally, she felt ready to try this section on her own. She let go of my hand and it was just awesome,” Audrey recalled. “She made it to the middle of the ice and I could tell that she had started to panic. I told her that she could do it, to slow down and take a breath. She stopped, took a deep breath, and then she looked forward, and I could just see the fire in her eyes that said ‘I’m going to do this!’”

Making one little movement of her skate at a time, Lizzet made it across the ice and didn’t fall. “We had a party on the other side of that rink,” Audrey said. “People must have thought she’d landed an Olympic-type jump because I was jumping up and down and she was so excited. It was a really great moment, a moment of seeing her determination to succeed really pay off.”

“She was so afraid of falling,” Audrey continued. “One of the big discussions we had was that everyone falls, even those experienced skaters doing spins and jumps. One thing I constantly reiterated was that falling is not failing. If she never wanted to skate again that would be okay, but at least she would have tried it.”

Once Lizzet realized that falling was okay, she was willing to try skating by herself. “I can’t tell you that she learned to ice skate completely or that she’s going to want to go again,” Audrey said, “But I can tell you that by the end of our outing she was not afraid to try something new and risk being unsuccessful.”

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To Protect and Serve

Veterans are notably resourceful and often self-reliant. There are times, however, when even America’s finest can use some extra help. Natasha Taylor, a single mom and Army veteran, found that support through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas and a Big Brother for her son.

“They’ve been matched since my son was in 9th grade,” Natasha said. “Hickman needed a male role model in his life. A father figure. He’s always been a good kid, but once he was matched with Sean, I saw a tremendous change. He was more positive. It was like a big weight had been lifted off him.”

Hickman’s father has not been in his life at all. “His father didn’t contact him on his birthday last week,” Natasha added. “Sean did.”

“One of the things I appreciate most is the time Sean spends with Hickman,” Natasha continued. “He’s gone to football games, basketball games, and wrestling matches. He’s been such a blessing to my family.”

The match does impact the whole family. Natasha is a single mom raising Hickman and a young daughter while working. She is also trying to advance her career by going back to college.

“Our match helps Natasha by providing Hickman with a male friend who, while older, is still close enough in age to understand what he’s going through,” Sean explained. “High school isn’t easy. You need people you can count on to be there for you regularly, and who understand and sympathize. Natasha has a lot on her plate. I’m happy to support Hickman and, if nothing else, provide a fun escape from the normal routine of high school life.”

Natasha is a 10-year army veteran who was medically and honorably discharged from the service. Following in his mom’s military footsteps, Hickman is enrolled in his high school’s ROTC program. He plans to join the Air Force upon graduation.

Veterans’ needs are unique. Recognizing this, BBBS offers mentoring services to the children of veterans. The agency also actively recruits veterans to serve as Big Brothers and Sisters.

“Members of military families are not always home due to trainings, deployments, duty assignments, field exercises and more,” said Saul Espinoza, a veteran himself and a BBBS enrollment specialist. “This can be particularly stressful. A mentor can provide friendship, as well as a sense of stability, security and trust. A Big Brother or Sister can serve as an additional resource and role model when a member of the family is away.”

Having a Big Brother in his life proved critical for Hickman when he experienced a racist incident at his high school – a comment from a follow ROTC member. “Hickman kept it to himself for about 3 months,” Natasha said. “When I found out about it, I got right on the phone with Sean.”

“Hickman and I discussed what had happened,” Sean said. “We talked about how unfair and unfortunate it is that racism exists. More than anything, I affirmed that he had done the right thing by not retaliating, and I told him I was proud of him, which I very much am. It would have been easy and understandable for Hickman to have lashed out, but he kept his composure and brought the incident to the attention of the proper authorities.”

According to Natasha, each outing Sean and Hickman have together just “steps it up” for Hickman. She laughs about the days Sean picks Hickman up from school. “Kids look at them and ask Hickman ‘Who is that?’ and he just says ‘My brother,’ and leaves it at that.”

“Because Hickman is African-American and Sean is Caucasian, the kids look at him and wonder what’s going on. But I’m glad Sean is not African-American because many people are all about their race and my children are not raised that way. We’re military, and in the service you see all races. I want my son to continue to like everybody.”

Sean sees himself gaining as much from the match as his Little Brother. “Hickman is a great guy. I enjoy hanging out and joking around with him, whether we’re just grabbing a quick bite to eat or going to a mall or arcade. He has an awesome sense of humor and we laugh constantly. He’s one of the most respectful people I’ve ever met. He thanks me and tells me he had a good time every time we hang out, and I can tell it’s sincere. I enjoy our time together.”

One event Natasha particularly remembers occurred after a trip she, Hickman, and her daughter had taken to Galveston. “On the trip Hickman saw a two-door BMW that is his dream car,” Natasha recalled. “He posed by the car and we took pictures. Then Hickman told Sean about it. Three weeks later Sean picked Hickman up in the exact same car. Hickman was shocked. It turns out Sean’s dad owned the same kind of BMW and Sean had borrowed it just to take Hickman for a ride.”

“Hickman came back from that ride beaming,” Natasha added. “When I say there’s been nothing but good from this match, I try not to tear up. I couldn’t ask for a better Big Brother for my son.”

Learning Together

The numbers tell an impressive story at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. Ninety-eight percent of BBBS’ Littles maintain or improve their grades in school, and 82.6% plan to attend college – almost twice the national average. Beyond the numbers and more important however, are the personal stories that support these facts – stories about matches like the one between Big Brother Cameron and his Little Brother Elian.

The pair have only been matched for about 10 months but there is already a strong bond between them. “I really didn’t know what to expect coming into this program,” Cameron admitted. “I was pretty nervous, but what surprised me was how quickly I became immersed and attached to Elian. After only a couple of hangouts, I genuinely began thinking of him as my younger brother. Granted, that’s not hard when you have someone as likable as Elian as your Little, but the depth of our match is far greater than I ever anticipated.”

Though Cameron is quick to deny credit for it, the fact that Elian’s academic performance has improved two letter grades since the match began is indicative of the positive impact of their relationship. “I’m incredibly lucky to be matched with someone who, when he puts his mind to something, goes above and beyond to get it done,” Cameron explained.

“That said, the importance of his education is always top of mind when we hang out together. We always spend the first part of our outings discussing how school is going, what’s going well for him, what’s challenging him, and anything else he might want to share about his day-to-day,” Cameron continued. “He wants to go to college, and I know he’ll do very well there. I just like to remind him of the importance of keeping his nose in the books if he’s going to do what he wants to do.”

One outing that reinforced Elian’s interest in college was a trip to see the 2016 U.T. vs. Notre Dame football game – a “nail-biter” of a contest. “Oh, it was unbelievable!” Cameron exclaimed.  “Elian had never been to a college football game before, so I made sure we got there a couple of hours early to walk around. I’ll never forget how many times he simply said, ‘I can’t wait to go to college.’”

Though that experience was exciting and eye-opening, it’s not the only educational experience Elian has had since becoming a Little Brother. “One of my favorite activities was rock climbing,” Elian said, “because it showed how we needed to rely on each other to succeed.”

In addition, since Elian is taking culinary arts classes in school, Cameron took him to a “How to Cook” workshop at Whole Foods. “It was great!” Elian said. “They showed me how to cut stuff and how to use the blender right. I learned how to make hummus. I love hummus now.”

Because of that experience, should Elian not get a basketball or football scholarship to college, he may turn his attention to culinary school and become a chef. He has an interest in owning a restaurant like his uncle does.

Elian and his siblings live in a single-parent household. Though there were male figures in his life, his mom, Bridget, felt that he needed a Big Brother. “He was at that teenage stage where he was not listening. He’d get angry. Since being matched, he’s become more positive and focused.”

“I was doing some stuff I shouldn’t have been doing,” Elian agreed. “I’d probably still be doing those things if it wasn’t for Cameron. He’s just such a cool guy. No matter what I’m going through, he’s so easy to talk to.”

“I think the world of Cameron,” Bridget said, “and so does everyone in our family.”

Meeting the rest of Elian’s family was a memorable experience for Cameron. “Elian and his mom were kind enough to invite me to their family reunion last year, and I had a blast!” Cameron said. “Family reunions are a foreign concept for me as I only have my siblings and parents, so I had no idea what I was getting into. After getting there and meeting everyone, my anxiety was completely washed away. Elian’s family was incredibly welcoming and the food was unforgettable. It was such a fun day. After that, I wanted to make sure Elian had a chance to meet my parents when they came to visit me in Texas. We had dinner together at The Olive Garden. Now, whenever my mom sends me a care package, she includes extra goodies for Elian too.”

Cameron decided to become a Big Brother because he wanted to give back to the community instead of focusing only on himself. He remembered how he had looked up to his older siblings, and he wanted to have the opportunity to be a role model for someone else. “Elian is a teenager and, while our experiences have certainly differed, there are still a lot of common themes that I can offer insight into.”

There are also some differences that can sometimes present challenges. “As much as I like to think I’m in touch with trends these days, I can’t help but feel like an old guy when Elian talks about what he and his friends are up to,” Cameron laughed. “High school has definitely changed since I was there, especially with all the technology and social media that are part of our culture these days. At the same time, a lot of the major aspects of Elian’s experiences are similar to things I was exposed to in high school.  Finding a way to communicate that without sounding outdated has been a unique, but fun, challenge.”

The educational benefits of this match work both ways. “The past ten months have exposed me to so many new experiences, and I’m very lucky to have an appreciative, kind, and fun Little Brother to share them with,” Cameron said. “When Elian tells me about his struggles, I want to help him. And when he shares good news with me, I’m genuinely proud of him and love helping him celebrate.”

Lately, there has been a lot to celebrate. In addition to having improved two letter grades in school, Elian recently received an academic award as well.

“Elian is an incredibly thoughtful, funny, and confident young man. He has the ability to light up a room with his wonderful personality, but at the same time, he possesses the maturity to ensure that those around him are taken care of. No matter what he chooses to do, I know he’ll do well,” Cameron concluded.

Spotlight on Adriana Adams

One of the first groups you’ll talk to if you want to sign up with BBBS, whether as a Little or a Big, is the Customer Relations Team. This group will help you get started on the path to being matched. The person who supervises this team is Adriana Adams.

A 5-year veteran of BBBS, Adriana began work at the agency as a Match Support Specialist. For a year now however, she has been the customer relations supervisor. She and her team are there to answer questions about the work BBBS does, to help people find out about resources, learn how to get involved, and determine the steps to take if they want to be part of the mentoring process.

“I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Texas at El Paso,” Adriana said. “After college, I started working at another non-profit and liked it, but I wanted to explore other career options.”

It was while exploring that she found BBBS and discovered that the agency was a good fit. “I knew I wanted to work at a non-profit and I liked the work BBBS was doing,” Adriana explained, “but I also really liked the people – the BBBS team. The agency also has good leadership.”

Adriana and her team are the first point of contact for people who want to volunteer to be Bigs and for those who want to find a mentor for their child. “Some people don’t have a lot of knowledge about BBBS. We help them understand how BBBS works, and what is involved in being in a match. We also help them with their applications,” Adriana continued. “Our work helps the process go faster and more smoothly.”

Helping is at the forefront of what Adriana does. “I really like helping the families for whom English is a second language,” Adriana said. “I also like talking to the volunteers. They are so excited and they want to make a difference. I have a lot of respect for their desire to do that and I want to make sure they know what to expect.”

“One of the challenges in my job is hearing about the difficulties some of the families we work with are facing,” Adriana admitted. “Every family’s situation is unique. They all have good reasons for wanting to have a mentor in their lives, and every child deserves to have a mentor.”

In her spare time, Adriana enjoys many hobbies. “I like photography, and I also take Salsa and Cumbia dance classes,” she said. She and her husband of 9 years also enjoy having friends over and fixing BBQ.