“Our daughter and our lives were forever changed by the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of Central Texas,” began a recent BBBS Facebook post. “We were new immigrants with 4 children and 2 jobs each. We spoke Afrikaans at home. My daughter struggled…” But there the message ended. Interested to learn more, we reached out to the mom who posted the comments and her family whose lives have been impacted by BBBS for over a decade.
Zelda Botha came to the United States from South Africa in 1994 with her husband and two children. “We were Afrikaners,” she said. “We didn’t speak English, only Afrikaans. We immigrated on religious visas. My husband and I are both ordained ministers.”
After landing in Virginia, the family quickly made their way to Central Texas and to jobs in Austin. “I always joke that Austin is the spot just before heaven,” said Zelda. “We really see ourselves as Texans and Americans.”
The Bothas were where they wanted to be, but that didn’t make the challenges of being an immigrant family any easier. “It’s really tough when you come as an immigrant,” said Zelda. “You don’t know the language. You don’t have family close by. You don’t understand the money. You don’t even know how to mail a letter back to family in South Africa.”
“Above all, you don’t have a social structure,” said Zelda. “In South Africa, when the schools are closed, all of the workplaces are closed too. It’s not like that in the U.S. Many times it was a real crisis for me because my kids could not go to school and I had no place to leave them while I was working because it takes time to make friends.”
Zelda and her husband often worked 2 jobs each to provide for their family. They even started their own business at one point. They worked for minimum wage and, in applying for jobs, were often treated as though they had just come out of high school, despite their professional credentials and degrees.
Bigger challenges came, however, when their third child was born. “I had an unusual complication during my pregnancy that resulted in the baby having less room to develop. Consequently, Mikayla faced challenges just to survive.”
“When she was born, she seemed premature even though she’d been delivered at full-term, and she was always a little behind other children her age developmentally. She didn’t start speaking until she was close to school-age, and the challenges were magnified once school began.”
“This is actually where my journey with BBBS begins,” Zelda continued. “At this point, I was very busy. I had two older children, I had Mikayla, I also had Lauren, who is a year younger than Mikayla, and I was working.”
Mikayla was having trouble learning to read and the school she attended provided her with a volunteer tutor. One day, a BBBS staff member contacted Zelda about enrolling her daughter in the program.
“A representative from BBBS called and told me that my daughter’s tutor wanted to be her Big Sister outside of school,” said Zelda.
Zelda arranged a home visit to talk with a BBBS staff member, and she talked with Mikayla about having a mentor. “After learning more about BBBS, I started feeling more comfortable with the situation.”
Zelda was concerned about Mikayla’s disabilities, which often prompted her daughter to behave impulsively. “We were at a crisis point in Mikayla’s life,” said Zelda. “I discovered that Mikayla was struggling so much in school that she was acting out by taking the teacher’s things. I found all of these pens and colors hidden under Mikayla’s bed, and I realized there was a real problem.”
Being matched with a Big Sister turned the tide for Mikayla. She wasn’t matched with her reading tutor after all, but with an older Big Sister named Cayla. “BBBS’ staff decided that Mikayla needed a more mature Big Sister,” said Zelda. “When the two started forming a bond, Mikayla loved it. Plus, having a Big whose name was similar to hers was a big deal. Our Bigs’ names became very important to my daughters.”
During her school years, Mikayla had several different Bigs, but each made a positive impact. “When she was younger, one of her Bigs had a disability,” said Zelda. “She also had a Ph.D. That helped Mikayla understand that, even with disabilities, she could be successful.”
Mikayla’s younger sister, Lauren, wanted a mentor as well. “Lauren was constantly asking, ‘When am I going to get a Big Sister?’” Zelda laughed. “And she wanted a Big who had the same name she did, just like Mikayla’s Big had a similar name.”
“I thought, ‘This is going to be hard,’ but BBBS found a Big with a similar name and it was a perfect match. I was amazed.” said Zelda.
Mikayla and Lauren both started out with Bigs who had names that matched their own. Years later, they both had Bigs named Sara. Regardless of the names, Zelda credits all of the Bigs in their lives with motivating her daughters and offering them glimpses of lifestyles and opportunities that were different than the ones they knew at home.
She also cites the Bigs as being an important source of support when her family experienced serious problems. Zelda and her husband divorced, and she was then diagnosed with cancer. “The girls’ Big Sisters were really a comfort. Their mentoring relationships were not just fun and games. Our family struggles were a real burden for the kids,” said Zelda. “If you have a big family, your family comes alongside you when you have troubles. Immigrant families don’t often have that. The girls’ Bigs were like extended family members the kids could lean on and learn from. They were people my girls could trust and share deep concerns with, and who were genuinely interested in their well-being.”
Now, after 10 years, as Mikayla’s and Lauren’s matches are winding down, evidence of the relationships’ impacts can be seen in the successes the girls are experiencing. Lauren holds a 4.2 GPA in the Austin Global Studies program at Austin High School, is the leader of the debate team, and spent the summer studying in Italy – an opportunity she applied for on her own with her Big Sister’s guidance.
Mikayla, who was initially identified as a student who was at risk to fail, graduated early from Austin High with distinction after taking 36 hours of dual credit, college level classes. She is enrolled at UT Tyler where she plans to study computer science.
“I challenge anyone to search their hearts to see if they can be a Big,” said Zelda, “because you can make a world of difference in a child’s life. And you don’t know the impact that child will then have in the world. All the wonderful people we have known at, and through, BBBS have impacted my kids’ lives in a positive way. These relationships have made a lasting, and important, difference.”