Motherhood is brand new to 23-year-old Sarah. But she feels confident she’s off to a great start. Steven, her fiancé, works nights so that when she’s away at the nursing home where she works as a cook, he’s at their apartment with Niklas, the couple’s 18-month old son. The two are saving for a house and so that Sarah can return back to school to complete coursework to become a dental hygeinest, which will allow them to provide more opportunities for their son.
Sarah says she owes much of her good decision making when it comes to raising Niklas to someone who has never been a parent, herself. Rather, this person has been the most important role model in Sarah’s life. More than ten years ago, she became Sarah’s Big Sister in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
“As I was growing up, my Big Sister always helped me deal with and put issues I confronted into perspective. And today, when she sees me as a mom, she tells me she’s proud of me. I know I’m doing a good job and I’m sure it’s because from the time I met her, she pushed me every step of the way.”
Sarah grew up with her younger brother in a public housing complex in Lewiston, Maine. By the time she reached adolescence, her parents were separated. When she was 16, her brother, Zachary, went to Monmouth, a town about a 20-minute drive away, to live with their mom. Sarah stayed in Lewiston with her single father.
At McMahon Elementary, where she attended grade school, Sarah was among half of the student body qualifying for free or reduced lunch. She recalls that a lot of her classmates struggled with problems stemming from their own home lives. Many, like Sarah, were children all too familiar with challenges that came with parents who worked long hours to earn wages to make ends meet or households where one parent was left to fill the role of mother and father… So when one of Sarah’s sixth-grade classmates told her about how her Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor made coping with life a lot easier, Sarah wanted in.
“This poor girl had a lot of problems at the time – a lot more than I had,” Sarah said. “She used to tell me how her Big Sister helped her cope with things. I really thought a Big Sister could help me, too. So I asked Mrs. [Margaret] Messinger, my guidance counselor, if I could be in the program.”
McMahon had a school-based partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Knowing how badly his daughter wanted to be a part of the program, Sarah’s father signed the paperwork that would allow her to spend an hour a week during school hours with a Big Sister.
The Big Sister
Victoria, a junior studying American Cultural Studies at nearby Bates College, had been spending time at several area schools, including McMahon, to fulfill requirements for her degree. After spending a few weeks with Sue Moccia, the school’s art teacher, Victoria was making quite an impression. Her energetic personality and animated story telling made her quite a hit with students, too. It was not long before Mrs. Messinger, the guidance counselor, approached Victoria with a special request.
“She asked if I would consider volunteering for the school’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Then she told me about Sarah, a sixth grader she felt would be a perfect Little Sister for me. Sarah and I had very similar personalities; shy at times, outgoing at others. We both loved shoes, clothes, and the majority of our friends were male.
Victoria’s life could not have been more different than Sarah’s. She is the great-granddaughter of N.C. Wyeth, whose illustrations brought to life Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe; niece to Jamie Wyeth; and the only grandchild of Andrew Wyeth, one of the most accomplished and renown U.S. painters of the 20th century. Fortunately for the students at McMahon, while Victoria had a very privileged background, she was also encouraged to share her own special gifts – her intimate knowledge of her family’s art collections; innate intelligence and guileless sense of humor. Victoria and Sarah would soon learn that despite the differences in their families’ financial situations, many of the girls’ personal struggles and issues were identical.
Victoria was excited about continuing on at the school as a volunteer mentor – under one condition. She asked Mrs. Messinger to not tell her prospective Little Sister that she was the granddaughter of the famous artist. Within the week, the program matched Victoria and Sarah.
Sarah would soon learn about Victoria’s famous grandfather, however she was not affected by it, nor did it change her feelings about Victoria. “I never really thought about it. He was always Andy to me. I didn’t know him as Andrew Wyeth – I just knew him as Vic’s grandpa.”
Sarah and “Vic”
“I remember that when I first met “Vic;” she came over and introduced herself. She gave me a chocolate candy. I was kind of shy at the time. But Vic has this really hyper, high energy way about her. I’d never met anyone her age who was that fun and silly – and at the same time, so smart. I felt so lucky when I found out she was going to be my Big Sister.”
Like Sarah, Victoria has vivid memories of their early mentoring sessions more than ten years ago. “The first day, we played Scrabble in the back of the auditorium. Before the second or third time we met, I’d gone to FAO Schwartz and bought a kit for making lip gloss, gum and gummy bears. We had so much fun. It was the beginning of this wonderful relationship,” she said.
“I always had something to look forward to. Vic was always so happy; and we did things I’d never done before. I remember trying to microwave the lip gloss in the guidance counselor’s office. It was great.”
Sarah remembers the hopeful feeling she experienced each Tuesday, the day of her weekly visits with her Big Sister.
For her 21st birthday, Victoria went on a trip to Europe. She wanted to make sure Sarah did not feel abandoned. “I sent her postcards and all my friends and buddies signed cards for her. It meant a lot to her. After that, we just really blossomed.”
By the end of May when the semester ended, Victoria paid a visit to Sarah’s home. “There was no way I was going to let the relationship end,” Victoria said.
Sarah said her father was more than willing to give his permission for the mentoring friendship to continue outside of school. Victoria believes his opinion of her formed early on in the mentoring friendship. Victoria happened to be at school the day his daughter discovered that she had become a young woman.
“I’ll never forget that day. Sarah was wearing a yellow t-shirt and blue jean overalls. She was so confused and afraid. But I wanted her to know this was a big day and that I was excited for her. Given the special circumstances, the school allowed me to drive her home. So that was the first time I met Sarah’s dad.”
That day also remains indelible in Sarah’s mind. “She took me to the store and bought everything I would need not just for the next few days, but for several months. She explained what had happened and made me feel so special,” Sarah said.
The Mentoring Relationship Evolves
As the mentoring relationship continued outside of school, Victoria took Sarah to places that were important to her: art museums and even to the Wyeth Center at the Farnsworth Art Museum. She was there with Sarah for many firsts, her first time wearing lipstick [Victoria showed her how to tone it down], her first date, and a few times when she was about to make an unwise decision. Each step, she offered advice and when necessary, some strong opinions. Eventually Victoria also took Sarah to her home in Cushing, the farm, owned by her family.
“It never mattered to me that Vic came from a wealthy family,” Sarah said. “Through her I learned that wealthy people have problems just like everyone else. They have more options, but they still have to deal with life. In fact, I know by everything I’ve seen that I never want to be that wealthy. But I do want to take advantage of the opportunities I do have so I can give my son the best life possible,” she said.
One of Sarah and Victoria’s fondest memories of their mentoring relationship centers on reading and their shared love for books – especially horror novels by Stephen King. Victoria has always had a strong interest in forensic psychiatry and thus introduced Sarah to both King books along with actual psychology textbooks. Victoria recalls, “I remember sitting on a blanket in the park in Lewiston with Sarah. We would eat sandwiches, chips, sodas and sit out for hours with me reading to her. It was very special to me. I never had a younger sister so this meant the world to me.
The relationship took on new dimensions with every change in the young women’s lives. When Victoria completed her undergraduate studies at Bates and went on to Harvard where she spent a year as a visiting graduate student, Sarah and Victoria wrote letters to one another on a very regular basis. The letter writing continued when Victoria went on to Wesleyan College in Middletown, Ct. to work on a master’s in psychology.
Throughout their friendship, both mentee and mentor would grow in their relationship, each learning from the other.
“She and I had fights. She taught me so much about kids,” Victoria said. When she graduated from high school and told me she wanted to continue working at a sandwich shop, a job she had since 15, I mocked her. I asked if she wanted to make sandwiches for the rest of her life. She said I wasn’t respecting her. And she was right.”
Victoria found more constructive ways to talk to her Little Sister about her future and help her make plans towards accomplishing her goals.
An Adult Friendship
Sarah said she owes a lot to Vic, particularly for so willingly sharing with her the wisdom that comes with exposure and experience. To this day, Sarah has every memento from their experiences – event tickets, letters, even the postcards and special notes Victoria and her friends sent from Europe years ago when she was at McMahon.
Sarah’s self confidence and aspirations have been influenced greatly by what she has learned as a result of her relationship with Victoria, particularly during her most impressionable years.
“All my friends partied hard. I was the only kid in the group who didn’t party. I would just stand there. I told them that I don’t do those things and if they couldn’t respect that then they couldn’t be friends with me. I still, to this day, have never gotten drunk or finished an alcoholic beverage.”
Victoria said she has gotten as much, if not more, from their relationship. Perhaps most meaningful, she learned the importance of commitment, keeping your word and unconditional friendship.
“You can’t just enter a kid’s life and just leave. I had no siblings to teach me those lessons. Plus, she’s just so awesome. She’s truly my Little Sister.”