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Big Brothers, Big Sisters Program Fosters Friendships

For the youths, many the children of single parents, having a mentor to turn to can have a lasting effect.

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Big Brother Mike Salston, left, plays volleyball with Little Brother Gustavo at Skater’s Point. The need for big brothers is high, and the program is always looking for interested participants. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

A year and a half ago, Marlene Hernandez was in a tough spot. As the youngest sibling of a single mother with a lot on her plate, Hernandez didn’t get the attention and guidance a 9-year-old girl needs to grow and adjust well.

Fortunately, her mother introduced her to a local program with a reputation for pointing youths in the right direction: Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Santa Barbara County.

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Sister pair Celyse Weller, left, and Marlene Hernandez say they have grown close through the program. “It’s great because I can tell Celyse things that I can’t tell my mom,” Hernandez says. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

“I had some friends that were doing it and they said it was fun,” Hernandez said. “So I said yes.” And she got on the list.

Meanwhile, Celyse Weller, a 21-year-old recent transplant from Alaska, was having a great time in the Santa Barbara sun, going to college and making new friends, but she missed her family, especially her younger sister.

“I learned about the program from a friend of mine who was doing it, and I thought I’d try it,” she said. “I used to do a lot of volunteering in Alaska.”

A short time later, Hernandez got her Big Sister, a grownup who could take her places. Someone who could mentor her like a teacher, but have fun like a friend. Weller got a Little Sister to hang out with, and the satisfaction of helping guide a younger person through the craziness of life. 

Almost two years later, the duo have grown close, hanging out on the grass near Skater’s Point on Cabrillo Boulevard as part of a group meet-up for Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

“It’s great because I can tell Celyse things that I can’t tell my mom,” said Hernandez, who is edging close to the stage in a girl’s life when boys are suddenly very interesting.

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Big Sister Lynzy Smeenk, right, says Little Sister Brenda Santana has ‘come out of her shell’ since they first met. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

Boys aren’t the only subject the pair discuss every week. Thanks to the matching process at BBBS, Bigs and Littles (that’s what they call themselves) are as compatible as possible with each other, a necessary element to developing a close one-on-one relationship.

“We go to the park, or to the beach,” Weller says.

“I never went to the beach before,” Hernandez says.

“Sometimes I just take her with me to the grocery,” Weller says.

“I like going to the grocery store with her,” Hernandez says.

What participants do probably is not as important as the time commitment they make, which is a few hours a month to start. Many of the Littles, such as Hernandez, are the children of single parents. They could be products of broken homes, or just children whose parents or guardians, for whatever reason, can’t spend the time with them. They need the company, the questions answered, the idea that their lives can be bigger than their circumstances.

It’s a story that is all too common, even in Santa Barbara. Another sister pair, Lynzy Smeenk and Brenda Santana, share a blanket while eating chicken. Santana has found someone to help her navigate her first teenage years. Smeenk, 25, is happy to help.

“(Brenda’s) not as shy as she used to be,” Smeenk says. “She’s come out of her shell.”

About 20 feet away from Santana and Smeenk are Big Brother Mike Salston and his Little, Gustavo, playing volleyball. The brother pair, who look like they’re having too much fun to stop for an interview, are somewhat of a rarity in the program because of the need for Big Brothers, particularly for young boys who might find themselves around gangs.

“Our volunteers are the greatest. They want to get involved and make a difference in the life of a child and ultimately the community,” said Bonnie Pack, head of the Santa Barbara BBBS program. “We tell the Bigs they are not their teacher, not their parent, not their counselor, but rather a friend. Our best volunteers are positive, encouraging, patient, consistent, nonjudgmental and a good role model.”

Many of the Bigs, Pack says, get just as much out of the relationship as the Littles.

“Sometimes the results can be seen right away, sometimes later the relationship serves as a kind of touchstone, that the child comes to when they need to feel encouraged,” Pack says. “Often we underestimate the extent of our influence on youth, how our attention can validate a child’s sense of worth, uniqueness, how special they are.”

The experience is not lost on Hernandez, who already has a plan. “When I get older, I want to be a Big Sister, too,” she says. “It’s going to be fun.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at [email protected]

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