On November 11, 2017, Joanne watched with wide eyes as Jennifer ordered a martini at dinner. It was the first time they had ever had a drink together in all their years of friendship. But Joanne didn’t mind. After all, this wasn’t just any night out for these ladies – it was the 30th anniversary of their Big Sister-Little Sister match. This was a night to celebrate, and they were doing it in style at the Edmonton Symphony.
Today, Joanne does accounting for a construction company, and Jennifer is a Rehab Assistant and mother to three teenage boys. Thirty years ago, their lives looked very different.
Joanne was in her 30’s and had just split up with her fiancé. She wanted something meaningful in her life, so she signed up to be a volunteer with the organization that was, at the time, called Big Sisters of Edmonton.
Quickly, she was matched with a little girl. Unfortunately, that match didn’t work out for circumstances that were simply beyond Joanne’s control.
“The staff at Big Sisters were so supportive,” Joanne says. “They made sure I knew it wasn’t anything I did wrong, and encouraged me to get matched with a new Little Sister.”
She agreed and shortly after that she was matched with seven-year-old Jennifer.
Jennifer’s mom was a single mother to Jennifer and her sister. She knew that her girls needed another positive role model in their lives and knew that she also needed extra support. It’s not always easy for a parent to admit that they need help, but her mom didn’t hesitate.
“I liked Joanne from the second I met her,” Jennifer shares with a smile. “I couldn’t sleep the night before our first meeting because I was so excited.”
The first time they met, Jennifer flew out of the house, grabbed Joanne, and gave her a hug before they had even been officially introduced.
“After my first Little didn’t work out, that first meeting was so meaningful and fun,” Joanne says.
Once their match was up and running, Joanne and Jennifer met every single week for the next 11 years, until Jennifer turned 18. In that time, they did so many fun things together – skiing, going to Halloween parties, exploring the mountains, making cookies, watching movies, and so much more.
“A lot of the things I like in my life now are things Joanne exposed me to,” Jennifer says. “She introduced me to a lot of really cultural things like the art gallery or going to see the elephants at the Calgary Zoo.”
Jennifer loves the symphony, classical music, art, trying different kinds of food, reading, and jewelry. She attributes all those influences to Joanne.
“I was lucky to be matched to a kid who was willing to do all that stuff with me,” Joanne says. “So many kids aren’t willing to try new things – but Jennifer was willing to try escargot when she was 9 years old,” she laughs.
Jennifer looks back fondly on all the cool things they got to do together. But what means to the most to her was how she got to be involved in Joanne’s life. For instance, Joanne would bring her to open houses at her apartment, her work picnics, and to church.
“With Joanne, I could just be me. I didn’t have to worry,” Jennifer says with a bit of emotion on the edge of her voice. “It’s still the same way now. I can come here with all the drama that comes with raising teenagers and she still listens.”
Joanne would always go out of her way to do the things that she knew Jennifer enjoyed. Swimming was one of those things. They were on a road trip through Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper when they made a special stop at the Hot Springs because Jennifer had never been before.
One of their fondest memories is from that same trip. They listened to the Lion King sound track over and over and over, because that’s what Jennifer wanted to listen to. When they went to the symphony to celebrate their 30th anniversary, the orchestra played one of those songs. Even though the sound track drove Joanne a little nuts in the moment, hearing it again with Jennifer as an adult brought her to tears because it reminds her of all those amazing memories.
“My mom wouldn’t have been able to afford the things that Joanne and I did,” Jennifer says. “I was a spoiled Little Sister, but I think I needed it. I wouldn’t be me if didn’t have Joanne in my life.”
Joanne interrupts, “I don’t see it that way. I think you would have tried all these things anyway.”
“With who? And when?” Jennifer asks. “Without you, maybe I wouldn’t have good relationships skills. Because of you, I know what unconditional love feels like.”
When Jennifer was 19, she became pregnant with twins. During that period of her life, she didn’t want help from anyone, not even Joanne so their contact slowed a bit, but never completely stopped.
“I was a single mom and felt like I had to do it all by myself,” Jennifer admits. She even got her diploma as a Rehab Assistant while she had little kids. And she did it all on her own. “Now, I’m taking the support I need. I don’t have to be Supermom. When I’m having a tough week and my cup is nearly empty, I can come here and talk to Joanne. And I leave with my cup full.”
Joanne shrugs, clearly touched by Jennifer’s compliment. “I just had fun being a Big Sister. It was fun to be loved so much. I don’t have kids but I wanted to do things and I didn’t have anyone to do them with. So, it was so nice to be able to do them with her. As an adult now, it’s more mutual.”
When their match officially closed with Jennifer’s 18th birthday, Joanne wrote her a letter. “It was in a card,” Jennifer explains. “I still have it. It sits on my bedside table and I read it when I need to read nice things about myself.” She’s got tears in her eyes. “Sometimes you just need that you know.”
Quietly, Joanne says, “You can always call me.”
Jennifer shares that soon she’s getting engaged to her partner Amy. “I can’t picture getting married without Joanne there.”
Joanne remarks at how happy Jennifer has been since Amy came into her life. “I wouldn’t miss it,” she says with a smile.
Clearly, this match has an incredible connection. It’s one of mutual trust and admiration. Joanne is steadfast and caring and Jennifer is full of energy and spontaneity. We asked them what advice they’d give to new matches to help build a similar bond.
They suggest being patient and open minded and giving the Little a chance to just be themselves.
“As an adult you know who you are already,” Joanne explains. “You’re helping to mould that person in a way. You’re influencing them. I can still remember the first time I heard Jennifer call someone a “doorknob”. I was mortified because she’d heard that word from me when we were driving and someone cut me off.”
“Consistently is also important,” Jennifer adds. “From a Little Sister’s point of view, make sure that you want to do this. This program is for kids who really need it. Even if it’s just a weekly commitment for a year, that’s huge for a kid. What if it’s the one year they really needed an extra person in their corner? What if it matters so much that they stay in school, or make good choices? What if this is the only year they get a good role model in their life?”
Joanne also believes it’s important for matches to do every day things. “You don’t have to always be on and perform. I took Jennifer to a family reunion and she was just part of my life. So there wasn’t a lot of pressure on me to always do something amazing. She was just happy to see me.”
Attention is also important, according to Jennifer. Some kids can ramble on and on and all they want is for you to listen and be present.
With tears in her eyes, Jennifer says very softly. “I want to say thank you to Big Sisters.” Emotion chokes in her voice and she can’t finish her thought. But the meaning is crystal clear.
Joanne, also holding back some emotion, adds, “Yes, I thank Big Sisters. I wouldn’t have Jennifer in my life without them. They did a good job matching us – it will be a lifetime.”