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125 JULY 2009
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being a big sister

Meeting Mary

Carina Lewis

I finally met Mary (the 16 year old I’m mentoring with Big Brothers Big Sisters). In fact I’ve now met her twice. After I made the decision to mentor a young inmate at a local prison things didn't quite work out that way. Unfortunately the prison's administration department was not very helpful in allocating me to someone there, which I find rather sad. After several weeks of trying, the case manager decided to match me with Mary instead. Mary lives in a children's home and all I knew about her when we first met is that her mother died when she was eight and that she lived with her grandmother for a few years before ending up in a home. I also heard that she wants to become a nurse and that she likes reading.

I was very nervous on the day we first met but there was no need to be. Tanya, the case manager, met me at the home and introduced us. We started talking right away. Mary is fairly outgoing, which made the meeting easier than I expected. We spent the first hour exchanging information. She has a pretty face but keeps her hair covered with a scarf at the moment. She tells me it’s because she had it cut and it looks like a “mushroom”, which made me laugh. She has a lovely cheeky grin and is easy to warm to. I noticed she was interested in knowing about my three children, especially my sons ... well, she’s a normal 16 year old I guess.

The second time we met I took her out for a coffee and a coke and we had a more in depth talk. I was surprised how much she opened up. I’m not sure why but I had envisioned a youth who would perhaps be a bit guarded and difficult to get through to. Not Mary. We talked about her alcoholic mother and her family problems over the years. I asked if it made her feel sad sometimes and she agreed it did, but went on to say that she thinks she’s better off where she is now than if she had stayed with her mother, who neglected her children.

She proceeded to tell me all about her boyfriends (three at the last count) and she’s obviously a bit of a fun flirt, but seems fairly sensible about it all. I haven’t yet broached the subject of sex and contraception, but that’s something I shall have to talk to her about at some stage. She also told me something about why she doesn’t like going to school and about arguments she has with teachers and peers. It became clear that underneath the great sense of humour and easy talk lies a huge amount of anger. I felt I was beginning to find out more about the real Mary.

We talked about how anger can take you over and how you have to learn to control it, but how hard that can be when you’re very, very angry. She told me she’s been trying hard to stay calm and not to get into trouble at school but sometimes it feels as though everything and everybody is against her. Afterwards I was thinking how it must feel to have been abandoned by your parents and having to live with strangers, being moved around and so on. Most of us have the security of a home and family while we’re growing up and it’s from that secure base we learn about life and make our mistakes etc. Imagine feeling so alone when you’re so young. No wonder she feels angry.

Care workers are wonderful people and most of them work because of a love for children. (It certainly isn’t for any financial reward!). However, they are by necessity very busy, trying to spread themselves among several children, all of whom have problems of one sort or another. Of course they’re not able to give a child that one to one attention and care that all children need in order to flourish. It makes life very tough for these kids.

Outwardly Mary seems to be something of a fighter and with the right support and a gentle push in the right direction I have a feeling she could be quite an extraordinary person. She’s certainly intelligent enough, although lacking in education. She apparently plays a mean game of soccer too and I’ve promised to go to watch her play one Saturday and cheer her along from the sidelines.

I suppose that’s what I’m there to do as a mentor “take part in all aspects of her life. We hugged each other goodbye and I felt a real hope for this feisty young person. Next week I think we might try doing some baking together. That’s always a good way of bonding with kids.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is a youth mentoring non-profit organization. It was founded in the USA in 1904 and became international in 1998. The program matches youth in need with adult volunteers in one to one relationships which have a direct and lasting positive impact on the lives of the young people. For further information go to

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

P.O. Box 23199, Claremont 7735, Cape Town, South Africa | P.O. Box 21464, MacDonald Drive, St. John's, NL A1A 5G6, Canada

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