I have always kept my Little Sister’s name private on this site. But as you will see, she is an adult now and voluntarily agreed to be interviewed for this piece. In fact, we were interviewed separately and when we finally read them, our comments made each other cry! This appeared last week in the Bay Observer of Hamilton, written by journalist Peggy Chapman.
It’s one of the most recognized phrases in North America: Big Brothers/Sisters, yet not enough of us actually consider giving our time to this organization. For more than 85 years Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Hamilton and Burlington has been providing quality-mentoring relationships between adult volunteers and children who are at risk of not achieving their full potential. Most adults are cautious of volunteering fearing they don’t want to get too close, or that they don’t have enough time to dedicate to someone else’s child, but just think of these facts: 80 percent of former Little Brothers/Sisters attained a high school diploma (compared to only 60 percent of others in their age group), and 78 percent of former Little Brothers/Sisters do not rely on social assistance as adults. That’s something to consider at a time when Hamilton’s main goal is to make the City the ‘best place to raise a child’. So, if you don’t think you have enough time to spend with a young person in need of a mentor, The Bay Observer would like to introduce you to Lisa Brandt. Many of you may know her from her time as a talk show host at 900CHML, or more recently as the morning co-anchor on 680 News Toronto, or perhaps you read her columns in the Toronto Sun, or see her on the tv show ‘Whatever Happened To’? For the past decade, Lisa woke up in the dark early hours of the morning to be on the air at 5am, while still packing in her other media jobs throughout the day, yet she found time in that decade to be a Big Sister. She was working in Hamilton at CHML at the time – 1997.
“I started as an In School Mentor with Big Sisters,” said Brandt. “I was a little unsure about the commitment required to be a Big Sister, at first, and I wanted to become involved with the spirit of the program without getting in over my head. So for the first year and a half or so of our relationship, I met with Tabitha (her Little Sister) in her school every week. We got bored of that! There were only so many games and activities we could do without going somewhere else. So we went into the full Big/Little Sister status so I could get approval to take her places and have her stay over with me, stuff like that.”
Tabitha lived in Hamilton’s downtown and found her way into the program at 8- years-old. After meeting Lisa in the in-school program, she longed to do more. “When I went to middle school there was nowhere to go and we were not allowed on outings,” said Tabitha, now 18-years-old. “So Lisa mentioned the Big Sisters mentor program and we started meeting outside of school.”
Time commitment is a constant concern for those adults who want to consider being a Big Brother/Sister, but getting “too close” to a child ranks as another reason people shy away from volunteering. Lisa too, had to face these two challenges, practically and emotionally.
“Sure I did. I had concerns about keeping her safe and not invading her space. I think it was five years or more before I even attempted to hug her!” recalls Lisa. “The training you get through the program really helps define the roles and the boundaries. She already has parents so she didn’t need another one! The other important aspect of being a Big Sister is to temper your own expectations. This girl is an independent being who has her own dreams, goals and challenges. It’s all about nurture and setting an example and being a good friend.”
Even after ten years, both Lisa and Tabitha still remember the early years, and how nervous, and excited they were and if they would actually like each other. “She was such a tiny little waif and soooo quiet,” described Lisa. “She didn’t talk to me for a few weeks unless I asked her a question. I felt a bit like an interrogator but I hung in there and she opened up a little at a time. It’s understandable that she didn’t just instantly trust me and I actually respected that. I had to earn it. I really only worried that I might not be up to the challenge of entertaining a child! I don’t have kids of my own and I lived in fear of boring her!! I’m sure I did sometimes.”
Tabitha’s memories are slightly different.
“When I first met Lisa I didn’t know anything about her and I was very quiet and shy. I remember walking in and seeing her. I believe I didn’t say much,” said Tabitha – but she happily shared her fondest early times with Lisa. “My favourite thing to do with Lisa was going to her house and having a sleep over. I got to spend more time with her those days rather then a few hours. I remember the one time of the black out I was at her house and we cooked our dinner on the BBQ. Good thing it was chicken wings and I believe baked potatoes because it was something that had to go on the BBQ. Also making cheesecakes at her house was so much fun.”
It seems to be the simple things which make the difference in an adult/child friendship. Even though Lisa had a fun job with lots of cool perks – movie openings, advance tickets to things and lots of free stuff – Tabitha cherishes the alone time with Lisa the most.
“She was the one that I could always talk to at any time. She did change my future path. My family doesn’t care much about schooling and what I was going to do. She always encouraged me to do more with my life. I could talk to her about my school work and she would always give positive comments,” said the young woman.
Life is full of changes which often put a dent in personal relationships. A few years into their friendship, Lisa accepted a job at 680 News in Toronto. For the first while, Lisa moved to Burlington and commuted remaining close to Tabitha and their shared activities, but with her busy career and early waking hours, Lisa had to make the move down the highway to Toronto and further away from her Little Sister. The bond was so tight by this time, that distance didn’t change a thing for Lisa.
“It meant that we didn’t do as much hanging out in each other’s neighbourhoods,” Lisa admitted. “After I moved to Toronto, I came to her for the day on a weekend or she spent the weekend with me. There was no in between. It meant more driving for me, for sure, but I never considered another option – I had made a commitment.”
When the two met ten years ago, neither woman knew what or if there would be any real impact on each other. Today, they can reflect with certainty.
“Lisa has made a big impact on my life. I believe having her in my life has been a big part of who I have become today,” admitted Tabitha. “Big sisters has helped me more than I could ever have asked for. They helped me apply for a CIBC youth vision scholarship (which she received) Now, I get my schooling paid for and a summer job.”
Lisa feels it has helped her gain experiences she would have missed otherwise.
“If you don’t have kids in your life you don’t get a lot of experiences, like teaching them something or getting the kick that comes from watching them figure something out or having them completely knock your socks off when they say something so wise,” Lisa said. “So Tabitha gave me all of that. Plus, she gave me opportunities to see life through her eyes and to be a kid again, myself. She didn’t run away and pretend she didn’t know me when I cried so hard I snorted at the end of the movie A Walk to Remember – that’s a true friend!”
Today, they live cities apart and live busy independent lives but still keep in constant contact. Lisa has recently given up the fast paced life of a Toronto morning news anchor for a chance to run her own radio consulting and writing business. She also does publicity for the World of Motorcycles Expo in London and continues her biweekly column in the Toronto Sun and writes for Real Women Magazine.
Lisa admits times have changed as has her role as a Big Sister. “She’s got a busy life now!” Lisa said proudly about Tabby. “She’s not a kid anymore but she’ll always be my Little Sister!”
As for Tabitha, she is currently enrolled in Mohawk College for Child and Youth worker. “I believe I wouldn’t be doing this today if it wasn’t for Big Sisters.”
Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Hamilton/Burlington told The Bay Observer that there are 245 kids waiting for a mentor. If you would like to support the organization you can sponsor the new media spokespeople Jamie and Rebecca West at the upcoming Tim Horton’s Bowl For Kids Sake 2009 or contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*****Through independent research and on-going studies it has been shown that “developing greater self-esteem in children while building a strong relationship with a mentor and cultivating a child’s ability to make and keep friends, offers the best recipe for improved social behavior and reduces aggression and conduct disorders”.
- 80% of former Little Brothers attained at least a secondary school diploma, compared to 60% of others in their age group.
- 78% of former Little Brothers do not rely on social assistance as adults.
- 46% are less likely to start using drugs and 27% less likely to start drinking.
- 52% are less likely to skip school and 37% less likely to skip class. The youth not only skipped school less but also earned higher grades and felt better about how they were doing in school.