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Big Brother Big Sisters offers friendship, mentoring and help with life choices

It's chilly, early evening at Josh & John's ice-cream parlor in downtown Colorado Springs.

On the sidewalk outside, Christmas shoppers rush to their cars. Inside, the high-ceilinged room rings with the laughter of a 13-year-old girl with a thick, glossy ponytail and her companion, a woman in her mid-to-late 20s with dark, glittery eyes and a bright pink smile. They could be blood sisters, they look so much alike, but they are not. They are Big Sister Jamie and Little Sister Cecily of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of the Pikes Peak region.

Every week for the past 3 1/2 months, Jamie and Cecily have spent two to four hours together as part of the One to One Community-based Mentoring Program of BBBS. Some weeks they go to the movies or rent a video; one week they went roller-skating; last week they baked cookies together. But mostly, they just talk and laugh, like friends.

"She's exactly like me, just older," says Cecily, nudging Jamie in the ribs. "We like the same music, tell the same jokes."

Cecily has had a few difficult years since her father died when she was 9. Her mother, going to school, single and raising Cecily and another child, turned to Big Brothers Big Sisters for help.

"I have a hard time talking to my mom, so she thought I could talk better with someone else," says Cecily. It's a common problem for mothers and teen-age daughters, but Big Brothers Big Sisters executive director Robin Rogers says many mothers, though eager to enroll their sons in the program, are often reluctant to enroll their daughters. As a result, the program has a surplus of female volunteers awaiting a match with a Little Sister, while boys have to wait as long as 1 1/2 to 2 years for a match with a male volunteer.

Jamie, who works as volunteer coordinator for the sheriff's office, says being a Big Sister is as fulfilling for her as it is for Cecily.

"We're both pretty open to everything that happens, open to trying new things," she says. "And not being a parent, we can talk about serious stuff confidentially." Cecily nods in agreement, sobering a bit. "Of course," Jamie adds, "if she said she was going to harm herself or someone else, her mother would be notified."

To become a Big Sister, Jamie was carefully screened, and she and Cecily went through an arduous matching process overseen by a professional caseworker. Jamie made a one-year commitment, and she and Cecily check in with the case manager once a month, to make sure the match is working.

"We've disagreed about things," says Jamie, noting that Cecily speaks very openly with her about problems with school or friends. "I don't judge or lecture her; we just have a conversation about it. I share things I've done in my life. What I realize is that some of the things I was seeing and dealing with in high school and college, she's already seeing at 13."

That's one of the reasons Robin Rogers wants to bring Life Choices, a program for pre-teen and teen-age girls, to Colorado Springs and to the young women already enrolled in BBBS's mentoring programs.

"The purposes of Life Choices is to open the girls' eyes to the possibilities in their lives, to learn to make responsible choices, to understand that they are in charge of their lives," said Rogers.

Modeled after a program in Denver administered through the schools, BBBS's program would meet once a week and would address issues like AIDS, assertiveness, divorce, eating disorders, nutrition, parents, separation and loss, teen-age stress, decision making, peer support and peer pressure, love, abstinence and preparing for the future. Still in the planning stages, it is hoped that gifts made to the Independence Community Fund will make it possible to launch the program early next year.

"We have a 96 percent success rate, in terms of making successful matches," said Rogers of the One to One Community-based Mentoring Program in which Jamie and Cecily are involved. Adults can also volunteer to mentor one-to-one in school-based programs through BBBS, and adult volunteers are desperately needed for the Second Chance Program, a mentoring program for youth who are adjudicated or first-time or minor offenders.

"We cannot serve the children in the community without adult volunteers," said Rogers. "And there are a lot of kids in this community that really do need mentors."

Back at Josh & John's, Cecily pokes and licks at her rapidly disintegrating ice-cream cone. She and Jamie are planning a camping trip in the spring when the weather warms up.

"What surprises me about Cecily," says Jamie, "is she's really good at most things she tries the first time." Cecily nods in vigorous agreement.

"Yeah," she laughs, "and another thing we have in common -- we both like to talk."

"Cecily's easy to get along with," says Jamie. "She's very giving, very loving. She loves my dogs."

"They're my nieces," teases Cecily.

The two friends, Big Sister and Little Sister, pull on their coats and walk out into the dark night, arm in arm, laughing some more as they walk past the brightly lighted Christmas windows, planning what they will do when they get together next week.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Editor's note: This story is the eighth in a series on the nine recipients of the Independence Community Fund.

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