Sometimes, it just takes one person to open up the potential in another.
Olimpia Alegria can attest to that.
Now a university student, the 19-year-old South Surrey resident said she was on a bad path in life before being signed up to receive a mentor with Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland when she was 14.
“I didn’t want to start with the program,” she admitted. “I thought it would be a really dumb idea, and a waste of my time, but I was wrong.”
Without her big sister’s influence, Alegria said she probably wouldn’t have graduated high school.
“I was this girl that would just want to party, and my relationship with school was that it was a waste of time, I didn’t want to do it. But I’ve graduated, and I’m in college,” she said. “I never would have done that. I never would’ve thought I could be the kind of person who could do it and accomplish it, but you can.”
Alegria said she she was selected for the program because she was lacking positive role models.
“My mom was a single mom, and a youth worker recommended that she put me in Big Sisters because my mom was working full time and I was always by myself. They thought it would be helpful if I had another adult figure in my life,” she explained.
The connection with her big sister was almost immediate, and they remain in touch still, she added.
“I’d have an attitude,” Alegria said of herself at the beginning of the program. “Initially, it was the Study Buddy program I was signed up for, for homework. I’d say I’m dumb and can’t solve this. She’d say I don’t care if it takes you two hours to sit here and I’ll wait here. And she would. And that’s what I needed.”
Before her connection with her big sister, Anna, she felt like she couldn’t succeed in life, and that certain opportunities weren’t available to her.
“I guess when you have negative role models in your personal life, it make you feel like everyone is like that: You feel like you’re too dumb to go to college or you’re too poor, you kind of believe it. Until someone from the outside tells you you can.”
While Alegria is currently studying psychology at Langara College, she said she intends to transfer to UBC to become a social worker.
And, she’s just about to register as a Big Sister, to help other youth who need a role model, like she gratefully received.
Emily Gordon is a case worker with the Big Sister, Big Brother program in Surrey.
She helps match “bigs” with “littles” and said there’s a “huge need in Surrey.”
Right now, there are 55 kids in Surrey waiting for matches out of 271 across the Lower Mainland.
September has been proclaimed Big Brothers Big Sisters Month in Surrey.
With kids back to school, the organization says social and academic pressures can be overwhelming and mentors can make a huge difference in children’s lives.
Gordon explained there are a variety of reasons children may be signed up for a mentor.
“These reasons could be bullying, isolation, poverty, abuse, anxiety, low self esteem,” said Gordon. “We try to focus on their strengths and bring that out in kids and see their potential.”
Gordon noted research has shown the positive impact mentoring has.
“We’ve found 96 per cent of adults who have had a mentor as a child describe themselves as happy, and 92 per cent feel confident. We think those are pretty awesome statistics.”
She described her job as a case worker as “quite special.”
“There are a lot of really long term matches, and long term relationships,” said Gordon, noting that it goes “both ways.”
“It’s not just the volunteer impacting the child. It goes the other way around as well. We hear about how volunteers are impacted. And having been one, I’ve felt the impact before.”
Gordon stressed that any kid can use extra help.
“We definitely have the stance that any kid can use a mentor. Our mission is that every kid who wants a mentor, should have one. That’s whether from the outside looking in, they have a ton of challenges, or if they seem to not, you never know what a kid’s going through. I don’t think that’s for anyone to judge.”
For anyone interested in volunteering, Gordon said “now is the time.”
“We have a big wait list in Surrey, for kids all over the city needing a mentor and waiting,” she added.