With a husband and three growing sons at home, Laurie’s life was fuelled by sports and testosterone. When she signed up to volunteer as an in-school mentor with BBBS, it’s easy to see why she wanted to be matched with a little girl.
“The agency interviews you to match you with the best fit, and I just wanted to work with a little girl. Even my dogs were male, and I wanted some pink in my world,” she laughingly recalls.
It wasn’t easy for a busy mother-of-three to find time to be a mentor. But Laurie was working for Children’s Services when then-minister Iris Evans launched a mentoring program encouraging her staff to become in-school mentors, taking one hour each week during their working hours.
Laurie’s first two matches were short-lived, although both little girls had stolen pieces of her heart. “Then I met my Tannan,” Laurie said. “She was in Grade 1, and she had the most beautiful black braids. She was very timid at the time.”
That was the beginning of a beautiful thing for both Laurie and Tannan.
Laurie came to learn that Tannan had some tough issues to deal with in her home life. The second youngest in a family of six children, Tannan is the only girl. She looked, walked and talked like a boy, and in fact she wanted to be a boy just like her brothers.
In-school mentors are not privy to the private details in a child’s background, and there are good reasons for that. “But I recognized that this little girl didn’t need someone pushing her to do the things she already couldn’t do. She just needed someone to spend time with her, to tell her she was important. She needed someone to love her just because she exists, just for the fact that she was born. I worked very hard to find ways to spend that hour with her in ways that could help her.”
Laurie learned that Tannan would sit still while having her nails cleaned, filed and painted. She enjoyed baking together in the school’s kitchen. “Just spending time with her was so important.”
The problems Tannan faced at home spilled over into her life at school, and sometimes resulted in bullying. “Often she was in trouble because she was teased a lot, and kids become bullies because they have been bullied,” said Laurie.
The principal of Mother Theresa School at that time also saw Tannan for who she was. Laurie shares, “She would also paint her nails. Those were the kinds of things we tried to do with Tannan.”
Laurie taught the little girl how to knit. When she was in Grade 2, they worked to knit a pink fuzzy scarf. “For Christmas, I gave her the matching hat and mitts,” Laurie said.
When Tannan was in Grade 3, she was apprehended by Child Services and brought into care. That was heart-breaking for both Tannan and Laurie because the rules around in-school mentoring prevent any involvement at that point. “I called my (BBBS) case worker then, and said ‘I can’t do this. This little girl needs to know that wherever she goes, there’s somebody who will find her and love her.’”
And so began the years as Big Sister and Little Sister. While Laurie slowly taught Tannan about basics like table manners and personal grooming, Tannan was teaching Laurie some lessons of her own. The little girl had a fierce and protective love for her family, and a real fear that they would be ripped apart. Shortly thereafter, Tannan was placed in foster care.
“It became a bit of a challenge,” said Laurie. “How do I support her while giving her the dignity and respect that she and her family need? I learned a tremendous amount about the love of a family and how it can look different. I learned a lot about the trauma of the residential schools. I learned not to be judgmental, and I learned that Tannan’s mother loved her a great deal. My sole purpose was to give Tannan the tools to make good decisions.”
Two years ago, when Tannan was 12 years old, her mother passed away. She heard the news when she was on the way to a school basketball tournament in Drayton Valley. “I was really angry and frustrated,” Tannan recalls. “I still went to my basketball game and my teammates were wondering why I was crying. I got through it by starting to write songs because that’s the way I wanted to show my feelings. Laurie talked to me and I went to her house and I just calmed down there and stayed the rest of the weekend.”
Today, Tannan lives in a different foster home, and it’s working out really well. Laurie says, “She’s not perfect and she has her moments, but she’s made so much progress.”
Now 14 years old, Tannan received the Junior Girls Athlete of the Year Award in June at her school. She has goals and dreams for her future. She’d like to be a singer, and to volunteer with the Humane Society. Sports will always be important, as she swims, and plays basketball, football and track. She placed third in shot put at the city track meet.
Tannan recounts her favourite times with her Big Sister, among them being pushed on a swing at the park, going to the cabin at the lake, and attending concerts together. “We went to see the Bare Naked Ladies and got to meet them in person,” she recalls. “And we went to the Jonas Brothers and Rascal Flatts, and Jordan Sparks. If I didn’t have a Big Sister, those are the kinds of things I wouldn’t be able to do.”
Inspired by her own experiences, Tannan says she would like to pay it forward. “I could see myself being somebody else’s Big Sister,” she said. “Somebody who likes sports, not too girlie girl, who likes to sing and wants to be herself.”
Laurie and Tannan recently talked about things they had learned from one another. For her part, Laurie said she had learned about never giving up, about resiliency and bouncing back, and loving unconditionally. Then it was Tannan’s turn, and she paused to think. “You’ve taught me how to talk about my feelings, and not keep them inside,” she told her Big Sister. “You’ve taught me everything a mother would teach their daughter.”
“Tannan will always be in my life,” Laurie said. “Because she has that, she’s able to go out into the world and make decisions, and she knows she will always have me. Because of that, she can go out and take some risks. She is a pretty amazing young lady.”
In a story she wrote three years ago, Laurie summed it up this way: “I am incredibly blessed to be a Big Sister and most importantly to have a Little Sister. It fills my heart, feeds my soul and energizes me in a way that nothing else can.”