When I was a child, I remember visiting the library one afternoon with my friends. I was about eight years old, and we were at the library because it was air-conditioned on a particularly hot summer day. All in all, it was an average, unremarkable day, and seemingly not a significant memory to carry on as an adult. But it has stayed with me all these years because I learned two important lessons that day.
While at the library, my friend Katie asked me to read her a book. I remember feeling annoyed because I wanted to look at my own books. But I sat down next to her anyway and read her the book, albeit hastily. Later that day, when Katie’s mom asked her what her favorite part of the day was, she told her mom that it was when I read her that book. I remember feeling ashamed of my hurried and ungracious attitude toward my friend and wished I could go back in time, sit back down with the book and spend more time reading to her.
The first lifelong lesson I learned that day: Our choices matter, even in life’s little moments, because you never know when you are impacting another person’s life.
At Big Brothers Big Sister of the Bay Area, we talk a lot about what it means to be a mentor and the ways a mentor can positively impact a child’s life. A mentor in our program (we call them “Bigs”) does not need to have infinite wisdom, infallible advice or endless resources to positively impact the life of a child (a “Little”). A truly great Big impacts his or her Little through intangible qualities like consistency and reliability, and this is reiterated to us every day by the families in our program. When one parent was recently asked how having a Big has impacted her child’s life, she said, “No matter who comes and goes, his Big is always there.”
Take Big Brother Tim and Little Brother Jason for example. They have been matched since Jason was in the third grade, and he will be entering ninth grade this fall. They spend time together on the weekends, hanging out and playing guitar. Jason’s mom and Tim talk, too, about how Tim can help support his Little through the transition into high school. Jason recently told his mom that even though there have been changes in his life over the past six years, he is happy that Tim has been one of the constants.
For children in at-risk environments, living in poverty or struggling with school, having a mentor who is reliable, supportive and consistent can make a profound impact on their life. When we are truly honest with ourselves, aren’t these the qualities we want other people to identify with us?
We spend so much time defining ourselves through external benchmarks like education, job titles and income that we forget we can offer the world great commodities like kindness, patience and understanding. And for the Littles in our program, it has been proven that spending time with a mentor who offers this support translates into more confidence with schoolwork, more trust in adults, and a more positive outlook on their future.
That day at the library changed my view of the world and became part of my identity. No matter how small and seemingly insignificant, those little moments are happening all the time. We cannot always know when our actions are affecting another person, but we have the ability to make those moments positive ones, no matter how routine the moment. Simply giving a child time and attention can make an extraordinary impact on the trajectory of their life. The second lesson I learned that day in the library: The moments children cherish are not always grand, monumental experiences. Sometimes it is just having someone who will take the time to read them a book.
Carissa Tonner is director of administration of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area.