Fourteen years ago, Chris was only ten years old. He had been through two Big Brothers – neither match lasted longer than a year – and he didn’t want a third. Refusing to give up on him, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton (as we were called at the time) asked if he would try group mentoring instead. Chris agreed and was placed in a Boy’s Group. For two hours every Monday starting at 6pm, Chris would go to High Park (later to Afton School after High Park closed) and play sports with five to eight other boys and a few volunteers. They played games for an hour and a half and spent the last half hour enjoying a snack, getting to know each other, and sharing stories from their week.
That’s where Chris met Andrew.
Six years ago, 21 year old Andrew was walking down the halls at the University of Alberta. He noticed an ad calling for volunteers and he decided to apply. Initially, Andrew wanted to be a Big Brother, but throughout the interview process he and his caseworker decided a community program would be a better fit. So, he joined the Boy’s Group and volunteered every Monday for over four years.
According to Janice, BGCBigs Community Programs Facilitator and organizer of the Group for the past 14 years, the Boy’s Group was meant to support kids who were waiting for Bigs or who didn’t want a one-on-one mentor. The Group gave them opportunities to build relationships with several volunteers and a group of their peers.
We met Andrew and Chris in a coffee shop in downtown Edmonton a few weeks ago. Andrew, who currently lives in New York where he earned his Masters in Mathematics, was in town for a very special occasion – Chris’ wedding. On June 13, Andrew stood at Chris’ side while his young friend said his vows to a beautiful young lady.
“It was amazing,” Janice says. “I was so impressed and happy to hear that Chris felt that Andrew impacted his life and that they want to continue to be part of each other’s new lives.”
“It felt right to have him at my wedding,” Chris says. “It’s hard to explain; I just knew I wanted him to be there with me.”
“I was really excited when he asked me to be a groomsman,” Andrew says. Though Chris was nervous about whether or not Andrew would be able to attend since he lived so far away, Andrew made him a promise: “I told Chris that it doesn’t matter where I am – I’ll be there no matter what.”
So where did this friendship come from? It started in the Afton School gym. Many of the kids in Group weren’t excited to try new sports and always wanted to do the same thing each week. But according to Andrew, Chris was the one kid who always tried his hardest regardless of what they were playing, and regardless of whether or not he was any good.
“I always had a blast playing against Chris. Sometimes you had to the let kids win to help develop their confidence. But not Chris. He had enough self-esteem for everyone,” Andrew says and both guys chuckle.
According to Janice, Andrew always enabled the kids to have their own successes. He understood the difference between scoring himself, and passing to one of the boys so they could get the goal. His passion and commitment to the youth was always obvious.
Often Andrew would pick Chris up for a fieldtrip or give him a ride home. According to both guys, their relationship strengthened during the seemingly simple car rides.
“It’s amazing the difference it made – my relationship with Andrew and just being part of the Group,” Chris explains. “Before I got involved, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was lazy and I liked getting attention – positive or negative. Being in Group got me out and doing things and it gave me structure that I didn’t have at home. And I suppose those little things amounted to larger impacts over time.”
When Andrew first started volunteering, it seemed like Chris had a new job and new girlfriend every week. Now, Chris is the Manager at a Soft Moc location in Edmonton and is happily newly-wed.
“The Group was really important because it gave the kids something to go to every week,” Andrew says. “It also gave me an opportunity to see other people’s struggles. I was fortunate growing up in that my parents would do anything for me. And volunteering taught me that not everyone is like you. For some of the kids, getting through high school was a big deal and a huge accomplishment.”
When asked what made the Group so special, Chris and Andrew agree that it was the people – the other kids, volunteers, and staff they spent their time with. Two people in particular – Janice and Rae (one of the only female volunteers and currently BGCBigs Service Support Admin). Both women were honoured to be guests at the wedding.
According to Chris and Andrew, Rae always fit in like one of the guys. “If you weren’t willing to try and keep up with us, there was basically a no-girls-allowed sign,” Chris laughs. “But Rae was awesome and competitive just like we were. And Janice, well, she is literally the best role model I’ve ever had. She completely changed my direction.”
Andrew nods and adds, “Janice knew when tough love was needed and she upheld the structure for the kids. None of us, volunteers or kids, could imagine Group without her leadership.”
“I treated Chris like one of my own kids,” Janice says. “I tried to give him good, healthy advice. We talked about the struggles his family was going through, what path he wanted to take in life, what it meant to work hard and have solid morals. I was always real with him. To be able to watch him grow over the last 14 years and to be invited to his wedding was pretty cool. When I arrived at the hall, Chris was out in the parking lot getting final touches with his family and groomsman. I went up to him, gave him a hug, and straightened his shirt and tie!”
When asked what made Chris and Andrew decide to keep in touch post-Group, they exchange a look like it should be obvious.
According to Andrew, they just have a lot in common – such as their love for hockey. “And when you care about someone,” he continues, “you want to keep spending time with them. Both of us make an effort to keep in touch.”
“I’ve always just hung out with people who are older than me,” Chris adds. “I think that I became more mature because of who I hung out with. I naturally seek that mentor to model myself after. I found that in Andrew.”
Rae agrees that Andrew was an incredible role model. “Andrew was always patient and loyal to the kids in the Group – even outside of group hours,” she explains. “He always went above and beyond for them. Not just for Chris but for any kid who needed it. Though Andrew was always a quiet guy, I believe that he made tremendous impacts on those kids. His relationship with Chris is just one example.”
Both men agree on the importance of having people who care about you in your life regardless of whether it’s a parent, a teacher, BGCBigs staff member, or volunteer.
“It’s the little things that make the difference,” Chris explains. “Even just simple encouragement or instilling little lessons. Those things might not be life changing things on their own but they add up.”
“It’s not necessarily changing someone’s life in the big sense,” Andrew adds. “It’s role modeling positive things and then leaving it in their hands to choose their own path.”
We truly believe theirs is going to be a lifelong friendship.by