Zelda Botha on Coming to a New Place

“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.”

Across Two Generations: A Look at Mentoring’s Long-Term Positive Impact

It’s often said that a mentor makes a long-term positive impact on the life of a child. For former Little Brother Anson Wilkinson, however, this impact has influenced not only his own life. Its reach has extended into the next generation as a positive influence in the life of his daughter, and recently matched Little Sister, Azia.

Anson’s mother enrolled him in Big Brothers Big Sisters when he was a boy, not long after his father passed away. Having a Big in his life meant having a companion for playing video games and basketball, visiting museums and aquariums, and rooting for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

“I felt like I had a friend of my own,” says Anson.

His Big also offered “little lessons that became life lessons,” he says, teaching him how to change a tire, mow the lawn and fix things around the house. Perhaps the most significant impact of having a Big Brother, however, was having someone to talk with about his future, his goals and his outlook on life.

“He helped me look at life from beyond my own perspective,” Anson says.

Years later, with his daughter struggling through a difficult transition of her own, Anson returned to Big Brothers Big Sisters—this time as a parent. He knew from his own positive experience, that a Big Sister could become another trusted person in Azia’s life– someone she could talk to and feel supported by.

“I wanted to give my daughter the same opportunity to have her life influenced for the best,” he says. “I thought this would be perfect.”

And just as Anson anticipated, Azia has thoroughly enjoyed being a Little Sister.

It’s been just a few months since their match, but Azia and her Big Sister Audrey have already enjoyed some classic summer activities together, like cooling off with sno-cones and visiting the bowling alley. They’ve also sought out some new experiences, including a visit to the Domain shopping center to sample a variety of international foods.

“Azia enjoys the friendship and social outlet she gets with her Big,” says her father. “They do fun things together, but they also confide in one another.”

Anson feels confident that Azia’s experience with Big Brothers Big Sisters will continue to have a positive impact on her life, both now and in the long-term—perhaps even into a third generation.

Breaking the Ice with Your Little: Suggestions from a Long-Time Match

“I was pretty nervous,” says Big Sister Kathy Garin about her first meeting with 15-year-old Little Sister Rachelle three years ago. “I was looking for a way to break the ice.”

Kathy’s confidence grew, however, as she and Rachelle discovered that they shared an adventurous spirit, and both loved trying new things. Seeking out activities that were new to both soon became Kathy and Rachelle’s favorite way of spending time together.

“That’s how our relationship evolved,” says Kathy.

For their first foray into the unknown, Kathy and Rachelle decided they would seek out the best pies in Central Texas– an accolade they ultimately bestowed on the Texas Pie Company of Kyle.

Over their three years as a match, they’ve continued to discover new things together –new tastes (Korean kimchi fries), new places (Texas’ first cat cafe), new outdoor adventures (stand up paddle boarding) and much more!

Their spirit for adventure isn’t all they shared, however. Over time, they discovered a common passion for music and choral performance that provided ongoing opportunities for nurturing their relationship.

“We were paired very, very well,” says Kathy. “We’ve discovered so many common interests!”

For Kathy and Rachelle, the creative explorations that began three years ago have fostered a relationship that remains strong. Although they may share adventures less frequently now that Rachelle is planning for college and Kathy’s job often takes her out of town, Kathy feels confident that her relationship with her Little Sister will endure.

“She can’t get rid of me,” Kathy laughs. “I know we’ll be in each other’s lives for a long time!”

For new Bigs and Littles, however, who may be unsure of how to get started, Kathy enthusiastically recommends a “choose your own adventure” approach for breaking the ice. Here’s a list of some of her and Rachelle’s favorite food and drink discoveries to inspire new matches:

Texas Pie Company – Take the scenic backroads to Kyle’s Texas Pie Company, where the motto is “Life is Short, Eat More Pie.” Choose from a wide selection of 4” individual sized pies, including Buttermilk, Southern Pecan, Strawberry Peach, Peanut Butter Mousse, Key Lime, and more, or take home a 10” pie to savor all week long! Just in case pies aren’t your thing, you’ll also find a tasty selection of other fresh, handmade baked goods, casseroles, quiches and sandwiches. 202 W. Center St., Kyle. Monday-Friday: 10:30 am-6:30 pm, Saturday: 10:30 am-4 pm, closed Sunday. (512) 268-5885.

Tiny Pies – Located in north-central Austin, Tiny Pies offers up yummy bite-sized pies, including sweet and savory classics, unique combinations (like Pumpkin Chai and Blackberry Balsamic) and rotating favorites inspired by seasonal ingredients.  With this seasonal emphasis, the menu is always changing, so be sure to call ahead if there’s something special you’re looking for. 5035 Burnet Rd., Austin. Monday-Friday: 10 am-8 pm, Saturday: 9 am-7 pm, closed Sunday. (512) 916-0184.

Blue Cat Café – One of Kathy and Rachelle’s favorite and most unique destinations, Blue Cat Café is Texas’ first cat café. Bringing together adorable, adoptable kitties with delicious food and coffee, the café’s prime objective is to find forever homes for stray and shelter cats. Visitors pay a $5 cover fee for the opportunity to mingle with and pet the cats, play board games, enjoy music and art or even take part in Kitty Yoga on Sunday mornings! 95 Navasota St., Austin. Monday-Thursday: 10 am-8 pm; Friday and Saturday: 10 am-10 pm; Sunday: 11 am-7 pm. (512) 766-5003.

Summer Moon Coffee Bar – Enjoy a cup of “coffee unplugged” at Summer Moon! This family-run establishment crafts custom coffee roasts using fair-trade, organic beans in a wood-fired, brick roaster they designed and built by hand. Rachelle loves to drink Mocha Moon, while Kathy’s favorite treat is the lemon poppy seed muffin. Locations in North and South Austin, Buda, Kyle, Westlake, Cedar Valley, San Marcos and San Antonio! Hours vary by location.

Andy’s Frozen Custard – One of Rachelle and Kathy’s first discoveries, Andy’s Frozen Custard in Round Rock, remains one of their favorite places to share desserts and catch up on life. They both enjoy frozen custard’s thick, creamy texture and smoother consistency than traditional ice cream and Andy’s abundant menu offerings. 1700 E. Palm Valley Blvd. #800, Round Rock. Open daily, 11 am-11 pm. (512) 687-2786.

Enjoy!

Double the Impact – The Veliz Sisters

Being Little Sisters is twice as much fun for Alicia and Raquel. As siblings who are both BBBS Littles, they have twice the Bigs, twice the outings, twice the BBBS scholarship funds, and twice the support for their future plans. Alicia and Raquel are the first in their family to attend college, and after hearing about their goals, it’s clear that these young women are well on their way to achieving success in the world.

Children in a single-parent household, the two were matched with Big Sisters during their middle school years at the urging of their aunt who’d seen the benefits of BBBS’ program.  Alicia, the oldest, is matched with Big Sister Kyra, and she is the more reserved of the two. Raquel is matched with Sarah, and she describes herself as talkative and outgoing. Despite, or maybe due to, their differences, both sisters agree that having Bigs in their lives has made a difference.

“(My Big Sister) Sarah encourages me to be myself, and that’s something I really like about her,” said Raquel. “My mom is very supportive, but she had us when she was so young that she didn’t really get to have a childhood herself. She doesn’t know how to let me be creative, whereas Sarah does. It’s nice to have someone say ‘You can do this. Don’t be afraid.’”

Raquel and her Big are often mistaken for being biological sisters. “She’s very much like me,” said Raquel. “She is super adventurous and she loves to try new things. She always wants to make things, or go to a coffee shop and play board games. I love that. And I can talk to her about anything, and she listens and shares her experiences.”

Alicia agrees that having a Big who is encouraging and a confidante has been a plus in her life, particularly since the biological sisters have very different personalities and were not really close growing up. “(My Big Sister) Kyra has taught me a lot about being professional but not forgetting to have fun,” said Alicia. “We like to be silly, but then Kyra will turn around and give me advice on getting a good credit score. Then we’ll go back to being silly again. Part of what I’m learning is how to keep my business life separate from my personal life.”

It’s an important skill to have, as Alicia is pursuing a major in business management. She recently completed her first year at the University of Texas at San Antonio and she is working as an intern at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas this summer.

Raquel, on the other hand, is a recent high school graduate who is planning to attend Franklin University in Switzerland this fall. She will be studying Environmental Science, but she also plans to get certified to teach English as a Second Language internationally. The opportunity to study abroad is something she simply took a chance on.

“I applied to a lot of different colleges, but Franklin University is the only international school among them,” said Raquel. “The University is supposed to send out acceptance letters before the end of May, and I received mine the very last week. I was nervous. A friend kept saying, ‘If you get in, you have to go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’”

“It’s going to be hard being so far away, and it’s going to be hard on my mom, but I’m lucky she’s so supportive,” Raquel admitted. “My Big Sister has also been very supportive. She studied abroad for a year, and she’s been telling me about her experiences, which has helped.”

How will Alicia feel about her sister being so far away? “I’m trying to play it cool. I’m trying to pretend that I’m not going to miss her, but – honestly – I will,” said Alicia. “When Raquel is gone I won’t have anyone pushing me to do fun stuff, even when I don’t want to. When I give in, I always have to admit that I enjoyed it. I just don’t want to tell her!”

The pair have agreed to video chat each week to keep in touch while Raquel is away. Alicia is also saving money to visit Raquel in Switzerland. But each sister plans to give the other space to grow while working toward her own goals.

“Ultimately, I want to own a bakery,” said Alicia, “or possibly go to culinary school after college.” It’s a goal her sister wants her to achieve as well.

“I want Alicia to have a bakery,” said Raquel. “I’ve also thought about how I want my life to be. I want to go to college, get my teaching certificate, teach, retire, then work at Google or somewhere else as a translator, and make a lot of money so that I can get a home for my mom, help my sister get a bakery, and just help my family out because they have supported and helped me.”

She adds, “Of course, sometimes you want one thing, but life throws you another. I like that about life.”

The sisters are both community-minded. They volunteer at events in their neighborhood. Their favorite activity is feeding the homeless at the annual H-E-B Feast of Sharing. They are also supportive of BBBS. Each received a college scholarship from BBBS’ Scholarship Program and each can see themselves becoming a Big Sister one day.

“Working as an intern, it’s been cool to see what actually happens behind the scenes at BBBS,” said Alicia. “I didn’t realize what goes into making a match happen. There’s a lot more to it than I realized. It’s made me appreciate BBBS even more. Part of my internship has involved finding resources for Bigs, and I’ve enjoyed helping them out. I can’t wait until I can become a Big, but I want to be financially stable before I do. I know it’s a long process, but it will be worth it.”

Raquel adds, “I’m always talking to my friends about BBBS, and I’m definitely interested in being a Big.”

Whether they end up overseas or stay in Central Texas, there’s no doubt these sisters will be making a positive mark in the world, representing their family and BBBS, and giving back in a big way.

Trevlyn and Briana

It was exactly as they expected. Big Sister Tevlyn and Little Sister Briana both knew what they wanted when they were first matched. Six years later, their friendship still lives up to their expectations.

“I was looking for a volunteer opportunity and Big Brothers Big Sisters just sounded really appealing,” said Trevlyn. “I was excited about the chance to form a connection with someone and to become lifelong friends and sisters – exactly as we have done.”

Little Sister Briana echoed the sentiment. “I like that I am able to have a best friend, and someone I can hang out with a lot.”

Seeing the joy on their faces when together, it’s not surprising the two have always been close. Through the years they’ve shared many adventures while exploring all the different experiences Austin has to offer. One special activity has turned into a tradition for the pair. “Most summers we’ve gone to the Zilker outdoor theater and seen the summer musical,” said Trevlyn. “It’s been fun to sit in the front row and watch the singing and dancing and see the costumes.”

Briana’s favorite outings are going to see movies, but she does remember one special event they attended after being matched. “We went to the circus and that was really cool,” she said.

A more recent outing was to a Round Rock Express baseball game, where Briana was the recipient of a Minor League Baseball Rising Star scholarship check.  The pair were joined by friends and family as Briana got to throw out the “first pitch” of the game. Briana will use the scholarship money to further her education at the University of Houston.

“I want to become an interpreter and translator for the hearing impaired,” said Briana. “I am already taking sign language classes.”

Trevlyn has encouraged Briana with her career choice, but proudly points out that her Little Sister did all of her own research regarding post-secondary education. “I didn’t have any experience with sign language other than a class project in high school,” said Trevlyn. “It’s something Briana pursued when she got into high school. She took classes and then started researching the colleges and universities that have good sign language programs to determine what would work best for her.”

Briana was an excellent student throughout high school. Something that was not always easy considering that she helped with her younger siblings after school when her mom worked. That is not the only responsibility Briana has taken upon her young shoulders. She also works about 20 hours a week to contribute to her family’s finances.

Having a Big Sister to confide in and get support from has been important in Briana’s life. “Trevlyn has impacted my life a lot by helping me decide what I want to do for my career and encouraging me to do what I really love,” said Briana, “and by just being there for me when I need advice.”

Big Sister Trevlyn has also been impacted by the match. “We’ve been matched a long time. It’s something I’m very proud of, our relationship,” said Trevlyn. “I’m proud of the way we’ve gotten to know one another and each other’s families. We’ve all become really close. It’s been a really exciting and beautiful experience.”

It is an experience that will last well past Briana’s high school graduation as the two plan to be part of each other’s lives for a long time. It’s something they expected from the beginning.

Your support makes relationships like this possible.  Thank you.

Learn more about our Game Changers program at www.gamechangersaustin.org.

Learn more about Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Giving Society here

Amplify Your Support for BBBS: Rain & Elissa

Amplify Austin is Almost Here – Your Gift Today Can Change A Child’s Life For the Better, Forever!

Amplify Austin is a 24-hour day of community-wide online giving, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas is excited to be participating again this year!  Funds raised through Amplify will allow us to create more life-changing mentoring relationships for children in Central Texas.

Amplify your impact for children in our community by donating today. Give now!

Rain & Elissa

Big Sister Elissa and her Little Sister Rain have been matched for so long they say they’ve done just about every activity in the Austin area.

At first they went to parks so Rain could ride her bike. Then their outings shifted to going to the mall and doing “cooler” things. Then things changed again to their current pattern of going to dinner and talking for hours. “I’ve seen the relationship evolve from Rain being a little girl to growing into this young woman who is now my peer,” said Elissa.

Rain lives with her grandmother. When she was first matched with Elissa she was very shy and was having trouble with a few classes in school. But just as their outings evolved, so did their relationship and its impact. “Rain became more outgoing and more willing to reach out to me when she had a problem,” said Elissa. “I’ve seen a level of maturity in her that wasn’t there in the early years.”

Being matched has provided Rain with a sense of security that has allowed her to set goals for the future, goals she’s been working towards for several years as her schoolwork has improved. She now plans to attend a junior college in Texas to focus on academics while pursuing her passion, which is studying dance. She then intends to transfer to an out-of-state college to finish her degree.

“Rain always tells me that our match is very important to her,” said Elissa. “She’s grateful and thankful to me for providing the consistency and support that have allowed her to dream and to grow.”

Your contribution makes relationships like this possible, and changes children’s lives for the better, forever. 

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Schedule your Amplify Austin gift to BBBS today!

The impacts of our program are great, but the need is even greater. With your help, we can provide more children with the opportunities for success they so richly deserve.

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Finding Joy

Joyful. That’s the word used to describe the match between Big Brother Denver and his Little Brother Juan. What started as an encounter between an adult and a somber, shy child has become a joyful reunion every time the pair get together.

“There was not a lot of excitement in Juan’s life, or a lot for him to look forward to, when we were first matched,” said Denver. “Now, it’s the neatest thing!  When I pick him up his face looks like fireworks going off. He has this radiant smile and he’s so excited about whatever we’re going to do.  And we have a blast.”

The pair feel like they are “a match made in heaven” as their personalities seem to be a perfect fit for one another. Denver has always loved working with kids and claims he is just a big kid himself. “Juan would say I’m funny and silly, with an overall playful personality,” said Denver. “He hasn’t had anyone like that in his life. He lives with his grandmother and doesn’t have any other male role models.”

The two have enjoyed going to movies, playing games at Dave & Buster’s, and road trips. “We go everywhere,” Denver continued. “To places he’s never been. We went to the Alamo and the Riverwalk in San Antonio, and we’ve been to Sea World. He loved that because he’s 9 years old and he’d never been outside of Austin before.”

Denver and Juan have a great time with all of their outings, but it is not all play time. “I get serious when it comes to school and his health,” said Denver. “I’m teaching him lessons about life, about the foods he eats, about taking care of himself, and about the importance of education. I hold him accountable for his homework.”

This accountability has impacted Juan’s success in school. “He loves to build things. He loves Legos, science, dinosaurs,” said Denver. “He’s smart as a whip. He’s doing so well in school. I will sometimes go and have lunch with him at school and I think that actually gives him additional confidence in that environment.”

Having a Big Brother who listens and who provides a consistent presence gives Juan confidence and stability as well. The match came at an important time in Juan’s life when his grandmother became his full-time guardian.

As so often happens with mentoring relationships, the impact is not just one-way. “Being a role model for Juan has made me a better person,” Denver admitted, “because he looks up to me. I probably get much more out of the match than he does.”

Someone else who gets a lot out of the match is Denver’s biological son, Denver Jr., as he and Juan have become good friends. At first, he was a little jealous of the amount of time his father spent with Juan. Denver Jr. was 4 years old when the match began, but now, a couple of years later, he is the one who often asks his dad if they can pick Juan up to go on outings together. “It has been important for my son to learn that people can come from different backgrounds and situations,” said Denver, “but that we all have similar needs and that we can all help one another.”

Juan is enjoying having an adult to spend quality time with.  For Denver the joy comes from knowing he’s giving back.  “During my 30’s I worked a lot,” said Denver, who owns his own real estate business. “But when I turned 40 I did some self-reflecting and realized I was not really giving back. Oh, I’d give some money here or there, but I wasn’t really making an impact.”

A woman at Denver’s church noticed how good he was with children and suggested he volunteer to work with kids. At that moment Denver said the lightbulb went off and he applied to be a Big Brother. That decision has changed Denver’s life.

“I’ve learned that giving back is so rewarding it makes me want to give more,” he said. “Being a Big Brother has helped me so much personally. This is one of the greatest achievements in my life, other than the birth of my own son. It trumps my financial success and my graduation from college because I know I’m making such a difference in Juan’s life and in my own life too.”

Denver also credits the work of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. “This program is the most important program. There are so many kids who need help. And when they don’t have a role model or a strong relationship with a caring adult they get into trouble,” said Denver. “Providing that one-to-one support is more important than ever because these are difficult times for kids.”

Experiencing joy goes a long way toward helping kids deal with difficult times. Denver and Juan expect to be sharing joyful experiences for a long time to come. “Juan loves me like a dad and I care for him like a son,” said Denver. “It’s just so incredible. I knew the first day we were matched that we would be matched for the rest of my life.”