Like many sisters over the last year, Denise Gonzalez-Mendez and Itzel Rivera have had to visit with each other over Zoom.
But before the pandemic, their in-person meetings didn’t take place around the kitchen table. Instead, the two sat around a conference room table at Gonzalez-Mendez’s employer, The Marketing Store, where they met through the mentoring program of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago.
“We definitely hit it off well and so we were lucky in that way and so we made an effort to keep it going during the pandemic,” says big sister Gonzalez-Mendez. “We both love putting things together, redecorating our rooms, we love animals, we always talk about our animals or what we would like to have if we lived on a farm or had a bigger house.”
Little sister Rivera says her friendship with Gonzalez-Mendez has opened up her world in unexpected ways. “I’m able actually to connect with someone and not just my age but older and see their different perspectives and actually take in so much more than I would be able to see from my view of the world.”
Their easy camaraderie was no accident, says Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Jeremy Foster. He says it’s the result of a robust screening process.
“We’re getting to know you, we’re talking to your friends, family, coworkers so we can understand who you truly are—personality, preferences,” said Foster. “We do that same care with the child and their family. We don’t bat 1.000, but what I tell people is, we’d be in the Hall of Fame. We do a pretty good job through that matching process, so once we make a match we know it’s a match that’s built to last.”
Foster says that as Big Brothers Big Sisters has been recruiting more Latino kids, they have also been trying to recruit more Spanish-speaking “bigs” to better serve them.
“We understand how important it is to see somebody who looks like you in everyday life, having success or maybe growing up in a similar environment to that you grew up in,” he said. “Even though we do have staff that are bilingual, it’s important that we have representation within our Latino communities, especially around the language piece.”
Rivera says that sharing a language helps put her parents at ease. “That makes my parents know that I’m with someone that I’ll be able to understand whether they speak English or Spanish,” she said.
Rivera sends her encouragement to any kids thinking about signing up to be a little brother or sister.
“What I want people to know about BBBS is that even though you might be scared of talking to people, you may be scared of actually going out and being social, it’s actually a place where you can be very independent, where you learn new things about yourself. You learn that it’s OK to be social,” she said.
And Gonzalez-Mendez says as a big, she’s learning new things too.
“During our session today Itzel and I were working on our new year’s resolutions and verbatim word for word I can pick up Itzel’s and say, that’s something I should take into the new year,” said Gonzalez-Mendez. “I leave our sessions learning so much from Itzel.”