“I have to challenge myself,” said 17 year-old Little Sister Natalia as she sat beside her Big Sister Jessica Dunner in a Boston coffee shop. The challenge before her was speaking with someone she had just met about the eight-year mentoring relationship she’s had with her Big Sister. “I know exactly why we were matched with each other,” said Jessica, who first learned about Big Sister Boston through an information session at State Street, where she works. “We’re very much alike in that we like to keep to ourselves a bit and can take a while to warm up. But,” she added “once Natalia warms up, she’ll give you everything.”
Gently challenging Natalia to safely step outside her comfort zone has been the undercurrent of their friendship. Natalia grew up in Roslindale with her sister; both were raised by their grandmother. Natalia often preferred to have time to herself. Early on, Natalia said she struggled in school and was held back in the first grade. At eight years old, she was self-conscious and thought it meant she wasn’t smart. Reading and math were hard for her. When she talked to her Big Sister about her feelings, Jessica was ready to help. In addition to doing fun and creative activities together—like bowling and painting—Jessica reviewed math flashcards with her Little Sister to build her confidence in school. They went to the library and took out books that Natalia read and then talked about with her Big Sister. As Natalia got older, Jessica helped her with science projects that she had to present to the class. Natalia was anxious about public speaking, so she practiced her presentations with Jessica to get more comfortable. One day, they went to the mall together and Jessica challenged her Little Sister to talk to three people—even if it was simply asking a salesperson a question. At the end of the day, Natalia felt a sense of accomplishment.
One person Natalia has no reservations talking to is her Big Sister. “She helps me get my mind off things,” said Natalia. “When I see her, I catch her up on everything that’s going on in my life.” Natalia can open up to Jessica in a different way than she can with her grandmother or her sister. She can talk to Jessica about her boyfriend, friend drama, or family issues. Recently they’ve talked a lot about Natalia’s future—namely, college. Natalia is focused on her academics and wants to attend college to study psychology. Jessica, who grew up in Quincy and went to Suffolk University, shares her own college successes and challenges with her Little Sister, and looks forward to navigating the application process with her.
Though their relationship has changed in many ways since Natalia was eight years old, one constant has remained: their deep bond. “It has never felt like we are just matched through a program,” said Natalia. “It feels like she is a real big sister to me.” Her Big Sister concurs: “I’m in it for the long run. She’s my sister.”