This is Lula’s story. She is one of 400 girls annually, between the ages of seven and 17, who found the friend she needed at a critical time.
“When I was three months old my mom left me and my dad. My dad has raised me on his own. I’m 16 now. (My mom) suffers from bi-polar effective disorder and schizophrenia. So she wasn’t in the picture very much.
“I don’t blame her though, it wasn’t really her fault. My mom suffers, so my dad had a hard time keeping her on her feet… Living in Toronto, we bounced all over the place and I wasn’t in a school for more than a year, except for one, so I didn’t have very much time to keep the friends I made.
“We lived there for 10 years, then we moved to the States because my dad met this girl online and we lived there for a year and that turned out not to be great. It ended with us leaving and moving here to Vancouver. I’ve had the same friends and lived in the same place for five years now.
“Most of my girlfriends had moms that I could talk about girl stuff with and that helped me when I needed it, but it still wasn’t enough. Finally I cracked and broke down and it was exactly what I needed. I had never heard of Big Sisters before my Grade 8 counsellor mentioned it to me.
“A (Big Sister) counsellor came and talked to me and wrote all my stuff down and found Erin, who just happened to be the perfect match.”
Erin MacDonald, a 32-year-old teacher who works with gifted children, is Lula’s Big Sister. “We met and it was really easy from day one," Lula says.
“I had a fantastic biological big sister growing up who gave a lot to me and who was there for me. I also have a fantastic mother who has always been there for me. It just kind of finally felt like the right time,” Erin says of her decision to become a Big Sister.
“In the last two years Erin has filled me with great advice and pushed me to keep going when I was at the brink of failure, even if she doesn’t know it,” says Lula. “Erin is a spectacular woman, filled with great knowledge and a sense of direction. She is stable and knows what she wants from life and I see myself in her sometimes. Erin always says that I’ve matured so much since we first met and lately, I really think that’s true,” Lula says.
Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland was established 50 years ago to enhance the confidence, self-esteem and well-being of girls through supportive friendships with caring women. They have been a United Way partner since 1977. As a Community Partner, United Way supports Big Sister programs but also builds their capacity to reach even more children and provides funding to ensure they can keep their doors open and light on.
Lisa Cloutier, Director of Operations, Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland says the organization has been fortunate to have such a long and close relationship with United Way.
“They have been part of our ability to grow in this community and to gain credibility as an important social service organization when we were starting out. Big Sisters feels that United Way really recognizes the importance of prevention and building self esteem with girls when they’re young.”
The impact a program like Big Sisters can have on a young girl’s life is more than can be measured on paper. “Mentoring and preventative programs are often perceived as nice-to-haves. Big and Little Sisters get together and do simple fun things, like playing Frisbee and making cookies, but what people need to realize is what’s happening while cookies are being baked together. Trust is building, encouragement is being given to young girls who may not believe in themselves,” says Cloutier.
Prevention is often a difficult concept to understand. Only time illustrates the difference it makes. 40-year-old Trish Quan is a former Little Sister. Trish, a special education assistant working towards her BA at Simon Fraser University, credits her Big Sister, Joyanne, with helping her remove barriers that would have prevented her from reaching her potential. Trish says Joyanne helped her with tutoring and later supported her emotionally when her mother died and she had to quit college to take care of her younger brothers. “She always remembered my birthday; she sent me flowers for my 16th and for my graduation. In my mind, days spent with Joyanne held limitless promise.”
Big Sisters and United Way have helped many Little Sisters like Lula and Trish who often come from single-parent families experiencing financial, family or social distress. Research has shown that one-on-one friendships with a positive adult role model can make a real difference; building confidence, positive self esteem and helping kids to make healthy, personal choices as they grow up. When community, family and United Way work together great things happen.
Lula was a guest speaker at the 2010 Big Sisters Gala. She thanked Big Sisters and Erin for providing her newfound confidence and she thanked her dad. Here’s the close of her speech:
"And finally, I love you daddy. I know we’ve gone through some rough times but everything’s slowly getting better now. Everyone in my life has made a deep impact on me in one way or another and has changed me for the better. I love you guys, from the bottom of my heart."