Below is a beautiful reflection on the journey of mentoring we received from Heather MacKenzie, a Big Sister. We hope you’re as moved by we are by her words. 

Heather and Sammi

Left to right: Sammi, Heather, Heather’s friend Anna

In 2002, I was 19 years old and enrolled in a Sociology course at the University of Alberta called Juvenile Delinquency. In that course, I learned that deterrence techniques are not an effective means of keeping youth on track. Rather, mentoring is a much more effective method of helping youth stay happy and healthy. It was with this in mind that I decided to become a Big Sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters. I had done quite a lot of babysitting as a teenager but I still felt extremely nervous around children so in addition to my hope of helping a child through mentorship, I was also intent on achieving a personal goal of becoming more comfortable with kids.

The first time I met Sammi was also the first time in my 5 years of driving that I had ever crossed the Yellowhead freeway. It is embarrassing to think back on that now but having grown up in an upper middle-class neighbourhood on the South side of Edmonton surrounded by teachers, doctors and lawyers, I really epitomised a sheltered young adult. I got ridiculously lost, not realizing that there were in fact rail road tracks that passed through the entire North end of our city.

Upon finding my ‘little’s’ home I was warmly welcomed by a very energetic grandmother, a very sceptical grandfather, a cute little brother, and an extremely shy 6-year-old girl who would not yet talk to me but managed to read me Cinderella with no trouble at all. Weekly outings followed with picnics, swimming, bowling and crafts. Slowly her grandfather ‘Papa’ and Sammi learned to trust me and talk to me as Grandma had so naturally done.

Sammi and I quickly established that the primary commonality we had was that we both loved school, but beyond that we had almost nothing in common. I was an avid soccer player and outdoors enthusiast while Sammi preferred to draw, write or read indoors. I changed my favourite colour to purple in order to enhance our bonding and Sammi allowed me to drag her on a variety of activities (if only once) including skating, tobogganing and on an excursion to the mountains where she confidently declared that ‘the outdoors was her enemy’.

Over the years we have both learned a lot about the need for flexibility in relationships. We learned to make plans A, B, and C in case our original plan was a no-go because that helped us feel secure in our relationship. We learned to love trying new foods together as a means of connecting. Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that for our relationship to succeed we need to be willing and open to communicating in a wide variety of methods, including phone, e-mail, text message, and Facebook, because none are very reliable for long in Sammi’s life.

In training to become a Big Sister I learned a lot of important concepts that have helped our relationship thrive for 12 years. #1 was to make no promises and to follow through on commitments. Sammi has had a lot of instability in her life and although I can’t change that, I can offer her a reliable and consistent relationship during tumultuous times. #2 was to put judgement aside and honour and respect Sammi’s relationship with her birth family. Sammi’s family has undergone more trauma and horror than I can ever comprehend and I have watched how their shared love is the rock on which they lean despite the relatively superficial shortcomings that Sammi and I can both see within her home.

#3 was to anticipate tough times during the teenage years and to trust that my ‘little’ would pull through. It pains me to no end to think of the hardship my little has endured in her short life. Having been ‘parentified’ at a very young age through circumstances that were out of her control Sammi has gone on to experience full-on bullying, harassment, & discrimination. She has also experienced the shame, anxiety, and depression that are often a result of serious trauma and loss. There were numerous times when we (her family) almost lost her and didn’t know how to bring her back and help her find happiness. The trust that I had been taught was essential to walking with Sammi through her difficult teenage years and I have spent a great deal of time trying to share that sense of trust and hope with her as well.

Sammi has demonstrated great resiliency over the years and I have had the privilege of witnessing her ability to overcome great obstacles. Shy though she might be, she presented to my church (full of strangers) about the Racecourse School in Zambia – which is a school for orphans and vulnerable children that she and I have worked to support over the last 12 years. In 2008 she confidently led me through a crowd of 200 people as the flower girl at my wedding. In 2009 she received the award of ‘Little Sister of the Year’ and has continually demonstrated her aptitude as a big sister as well by teaching her little brother and cousins how to read & write, and navigate the world. This year she accomplished a feat that few in her family have managed before – to get back on track towards highschool completion. I am truly in awe of her intellect, her compassion, her courage, and her persistence.

Sammi is turning 18 this week and our match will be formally ending. When you begin a journey like this one, you never know where it might take you and that is what I have loved about it. I never knew that through my relationship with Sammi I would feel empowered to become a parent and then a foster parent. I never imagined that I would have such an insightful ‘little’ on whom I could lean for advice in parenting a child with attachment and anxiety issues. I never dreamt that the experiences I had as a Big Sister would so deeply inform my advocacy work for First Nation students and families as an elected School Board Trustee. Most surprising of all has been the establishment of a relationship with Sammi that I know in my heart will last a lifetime and that has extended well beyond the two of us to include our siblings, my husband & daughter, our parents and our grandparents.

It has been a joy and blessing to have had Sammi in my life for the past 12 years and I am eternally grateful to Big Brothers Big Sisters for affording me this life-changing opportunity.

We are so grateful to Heather for sharing her journey with us and her time with Sammi. We are honoured to call her a Big Sister. To learn how you can become a mentor in a child’s life, please click here.

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