Making a Difference
Madison House's Big Siblings Have Big Hearts

By Sharon Harrigan

Originally appeared in October 2011

Three years ago, an eight-year-old student at Burnley-Moran Elementary School named America was struggling to acclimate to a new language and country. Her family had recently moved to Charlottesville from Mexico, and neither of her parents spoke English. Her guidance counselor recommended her for the Big Siblings program at Madison House, and she was matched with Annie Grant, a then-sophomore at the University of Virginia, as her Big Sib.

Now, at age 11, America has graduated from the program. She and her family speak fluent English, and America has become an expert at navigating around town. Shes always telling me, I have a shortcut, turn this way, says Grant. Now shes the one leading me around.

Damon was matched with his Big Sib, Neil Holby, two years ago, when he was 7 years old and attending Clark Elementary. At first Damon was shy. He was the most polite little guy, says Holby, asking if he could lay his coat down on my chair.

Holby took Damon to Lambeth Field, near the University of Virginia, with some other Big Sibs and Little Sibs, and they threw tennis balls, frisbees and footballs. Sometimes they grilled meat, went to a movie or bowling alley, or just hung out in Holbys dorm with other college students. But it was the one-on-one times that really made Damon open up. Good conversations pop up when you least expect them, Holby says. While driving or waiting in line or throwing a ball. We spent a lot of time together and built up trust, and then he started talking. And hasnt stopped. Holby says, We walk around grounds and he points at the buildings and asks, Whats in that one? Are all these libraries? He asks my friends and me questions about how college works, what our classes are like, whats a final exam, and he thinks college is awesome. I try to relate what Im studying to what hes doing, and that gives him an appreciation for his school work. I dont think anyone in his family has gone to college, so its great to be able to expose him to that experience.

Ilia was a quiet 10-year-old when she met her Big Sib, Raj Kaur, two years ago. Youre pretty, she said to Kaur the first time they met, but not much else. Now, two years later, Ilia is a confident 12-year-old at Walton Middle School, and she was a co-leader of the Big Sibs bake sale. When Kaur met Ilia in the Walton cafeteria at the end of the school year, she came in beaming, wearing a Big Sibs T-shirt. One of her classmates said, Youre so happy now that Raj is here!

Shes progressed so much since I met her, says Kaur. I can see shes more mature now even than her classmates. At the beginning, Ilia waited for Kaur to suggest activities, but now she comes up with her own. She especially loves parks. Theres a park near Carter Mountain, Kaur says, with trees that are labeled and lots of paths. Ilia has memorized all the names of the trees so she doesnt need to look at the labels anymore. Some of her other favorite activities are playing pool and frisbee, apple picking, and baking.

History and Mission

These are only three examples of the many life-changing Big Sib-Little Sib matches. Big Siblings started in 1969 and was one of the original service programs at Madison House in Charlottesville. It has grown to include about 200 volunteers who give at least three hours a week of their time.

Madison House is a student-run, staff-supported independent (not university-affiliated) nonprofit organization that coordinates volunteer work by UVA students in the community. The Big Siblings program is similar to, though not part of, the well-known and national Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. The student volunteer leaders include the program director (Annie Grant for 2010-11 and Raj Kaur for 2011-12). An activities coordinator (Samantha Law for 2010-11) sends weekly e-mails about low-cost or free events at UVA and in the community that might interest Little Sibs. Grant says, The program emphasizes free activities because they dont want the relationship to center around spending money. Sometimes the program gets free tickets to football games or events at John Paul Jones Arena, and thats special, but most often we take kids to things that are free.

Elizabeth Bass, the executive director at Madison House, has a wealth of experience with volunteer organizations, including Shelter for Help in Emergency and the Youth Service Work Group for the Commission on Children and Families. Bass says, Ive been involved with Madison House since I was a student in 1995. Ive watched some of my peers be Big Sibs in college, and some of them are still sending postcards and letters to their Little Sibs, telling them about their travels abroad and their graduate study, keeping up as pen pals. Some Little Sibs have attended their Big Sibs weddings, and vice versa. Its been amazing to follow how long the impact lasts.

Jennifer Walker, the director of programs at Madison House, has worked in Americorps and at the inner city sports camp called Kids Across America. She is responsible for providing extensive training for Big Sibs, and she monitors their work through logs and surveys. Many Big Sibs, she says, put in much more than the minimum required. Annie Grant, for instance, logged in 647 hours over three years. Shes leaving a huge legacy with the program, Walker says. She never brags about herself, so I will.

The Big Give

Part of the mission of the program is to teach Little Sibs to become leaders and give back to the community. Three programs during the 2010-2011 school year, called The Big Give, combined fun with the ethic of volunteerism. The first event was Race to Rake. Two teams of eight Big and Little Sibs raced around Charlottesville to rake the yards of three seniors and the Ronald McDonald House. Many Little Sibs were reluctant at first but now beg to do more. Who knew raking could be so fun?

The Big Bake involved 30 Big and Little Sibs making and selling brownies and cookies to raise money. The Little Sibs brainstormed and decided to donate the proceeds to the American Red Cross to help Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. They earned $300.

Future Friends was a relationship-building free afternoon of fun, open to the whole community. About 250 people attended the fair at Forest Hills Park, with a moon bounce, parachute games, face painting, crafts, tug o war and food. This event was made possible by a grant from Madison House.

How to Get Involved

If you know a child who might benefit from the program, the first step is to talk to the guidance counselor at the childs school. Big Sibs serves students ages 5 to 12 at Venable, Burnley-Moran, Jackson-Via, Johnson, Walker, Clark, Stone-Robinson, Greer, Woodbrooke and Greenbrier. Other schools may have access to similar programs, and the guidance counselor will have information about them.

UVA students interested in becoming a Big Sib should contact Jennifer Walker at jennifer@madisonhouse.org or register through the web site, madisonhouse.org.

The ideal time to start is in the second year, although training starts in March the year before. First-year students are not eligible, because the program requires access to a car, and UVA does not allow first year students to have cars. The minimum commitment is for one year, three hours a week, but many students stay with their Little Sibs for three years.

Success Stories: Big and Little

The best feeling for me is to see how much the program is appreciated in the community, says Kaur. She recalls taking Ilia to the UVA dining hall, when one of the cafeteria workers said to Ilia, Its so great you have a Big Sister! The woman was so enthusiastic and wanted to know how to get her sons matched with Big Sibs, too. Ilia was all smiles, Kaur says. She was so proud.

Holby says, As a UVA student, youre surrounded by other people like you, people affluent enough to go to college and you forget that theres a whole other world out there. The Big Sibs program really opened my eyes to the different types of family dynamics around Charlottesville and the way different communities function. It helped me see beyond the bubble of my little world. Holby says Big Sibs is different from other volunteer programs he has done. Its less of a service program than it is a relationship.

And its fun. Holby notes, One of the best times we had was at a gingerbread-man decorating contest. Damon made the man into the Incredible Hulk, with a green top and purple shorts. He won, out of about 30 kids. It was so exciting when they called his name and gave him his certificate and prize. He smiled and said, Ive never won anything before! It was such a big moment.

The greatest sign of success is when a child outgrows the program, Grant says. After three years with Grant, America does not need to be rematched with another Big Sib. She said shed like one, of course, says Grant, because its fun to hang out, but shes grown into such a thriving, self-sufficient person she doesnt need one. Shes developed so many leadership qualities that maybe shell become a Big Sib herself one day.

Grant has joined Teach America and will be assigned to teach middle-school or high-school biology in Memphis, Tennessee. When she talks about her Little Sib, she gets choked up. Saying goodbye this year to America was probably the most emotional experience of my life, she says. I felt such a strong connection with her; its hard to put into words. They each now wear matching necklaces, to help them think of each other every day.

Grant says, America and her family  because Ive gotten to know much of her extended family  have changed me in such a positive way. Mentoring is kind of like a sibling relationship. It carries responsibility like babysitting, but its much closer than that. Its the kind of deep connection with a child I hadnt experienced before.

Although Grants graduation means she is no longer in the program, her relationship with her Little Sib will continue. Ill keep in touch, she says. How could I not?

Bass says, We have many alumni who lost touch over the years and contact us to help them reconnect, and we do. Thats a testament for how successful the program is. I cant imagine another volunteer opportunity thats more long lasting.

And she should know. Shes been connected to Madison House since 1995. She plans on continuing with the Big Sibs programs into the future, as every year it grows bigger and bigger, like the Little Sibs themselves.

Sharon is a writer and mother who lives in Charlottesville. Her blog, Walking on the Highway, can be found at sharonharrigan.com.

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