Big Brother, Sister of 2012 special in lives of children
By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Heather Welsh and Amanda Welch get along great now -- just like sisters -- but it wasn't always that way.
"I remember sitting on your couch thinking, 'I don't know if I have the patience,'" Welsh, 32, told her 16-year-old "Little" recently over bowls of ice cream at Sweet Frog in Winchester.
The two were matched up eight years ago through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties, and although their personalities melded back then, they would see plenty of challenges ahead.
Welsh was 21 when she joined BBBS, and Amanda was 6. Each had a different assigned sibling through the program before they met each other.
It doesn't take a lot of time to be a "Big," but it takes the right sort of person.
"We would do homework, and I would visit," Welsh said. "I talked to your teacher," she said, turning back to Amanda.
"You took me to your house and we played Monopoly ... I was so excited," Amanda told her Big.
Over the years, their relationship has grown with them.
"Nail salon, go out to eat, we go to the movies sometimes," Amanda said.
"It changed from year to year, as she grows," Welsh said. They started out with a lot of arts and crafts.
Juli Ferrell, executive director of BBBS, said a lot of people think they have to have special talents to be a Big.
"What matters, though, is just spending time with a child and listening, something that, unfortunately, busy single parents can't always do," Ferrell said.
"People just need to be themselves."
Welsh is able to focus all her attention on Amanda, when they're together.
"Every couple weeks we see each other, and usually we spend the whole afternoon," Welsh said.
As for Amanda, a sophomore at John Handley High School, "I actually can tell you more than I can tell my mom," she said to Welsh, who wasn't sure how to respond to that.
When asked if their time together has made an impact, Amanda said, "School-wise, a lot. I know that for a fact."
Welsh, a teacher in Fauquier County, said her time with Amanda is a lot of work, but it is rewarding.
"A lot of people think you have to spend a ton of time," she said. But, "It's so flexible."
She and Amanda are part of the community-based relationship, but other volunteers can visit their Little at school and be a lunch buddy.
"I mean, how cool would that be," Welsh said. "It's not that huge amount of time that you have to have."
Cody Knickerbocker knows. He and Hunter Cleveland, 11, have been spending an hour a week together at Hunter's school for the last year and a half, first at Redbud Run Elementary in Winchester, and now at Daniel Morgan Middle.
"I was just seeking a way to give back ... give back to the community and really make a difference," said the 20-year-old Lord Fairfax Community College student. BBBS met what he was looking for.
"During gym I'm able to play whatever they're playing," he said. At lunch he and Hunter sit and talk, play board games the school provides, or walk the halls.
Hunter's favorite game to play is Trouble, "'Cause that's the game we mostly play," the 6th grader said.
Ferrell said that's a normal setup for school-based programs. BBBS offers school-based programs at Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary, Redbud Run, Boyce Elementary and Middletown Elementary.
"Much like the other [type of program], it's based on a relationship," she said. "A lot of it's just in that one-to-one mentoring one hour a week."
Ferrell said she sees the same sorts of positive benefits in the school-based programs and talked of how Hunter's mother told her the program was helping her son.
"He's volunteering to do things where before she really had to push him," Ferrell said.
Knickerbocker said more people should realize that they can do a lot of good.
"I think you should help not just when it's convenient, but when it's needed," he said.
Because of his and Welsh's dedication to their volunteerism, the two recently were chosen as local Big Brother and Big Sister of 2012. Each is eligible to compete nationally for Big of the Year.
Welsh said she was "really surprised" about the honor.
One of the things that impressed Ferrell about Welsh was that she kept trying, "Going above and beyond."
When Welsh knew she was going to meet with Amanda later in the day, she would leave notes at her Little's home reminding her. It was a little something extra to reinforce that she was thinking of Amanda.
Welsh recalled when someone asked her, "'Do you think of her more as actual family,' and I say absolutely."
"I've seen her kind of grow up," Welsh said. "I think that is why."
It makes sense, she said, "If you spend that much time with someone."
Those interested in becoming a Big need to be at least 18 years old, but Ferrell said there is no age limit.
She mentioned knowing of a Little who refers to his much older Big as "Big Pops."
"I always laughed at that," Ferrell said.
BBBS also sponsors events around the area that draw volunteers from both sides of the program.
Amanda said that she and her Big go to everything. At events Amanda used to be on the receiving end of face painting. But now, Welsh said, Amanda is the face painter.
"I just really wish there was more guys in it," Welsh said.
"There's a need for more people my age to give back," he said. "They can make a big difference."
BBBS follows up with its Bigs each month and talks with Littles and their parents, Ferrell said.
"We ask a lot of questions and we interview them," she said.
"We talk about it like fun with a purpose," Ferrell said. She coaches the coaches, she said.
And there have been Littles who have graduated to become Bigs.
"We're talking about if you're going to be a Big," Welsh said.
Amanda agreed, "Yeah, we've been talking about that."
"It changed me so much. ... I want to do it," she said. "I want to help someone else."
For information about Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties, call 662-1043 or visit www.bbbswinchester.org.