From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Big Sisterhood

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive.

Anaïs Nin

The Big Brothers and Big Sisters program always sounded like a worthwhile cause. I thought, One day, when I’m not such a busy trial lawyer, I would like to volunteer to be a Big Sister.

One month later, in the local Bar Association newsletter, I noticed a desperate plea for men and women to volunteer. Many children had been waiting well over a year. Even though it seemed like a great imposition on my time, I decided that this request was directed at me.

The next question that popped into my mind was whether the program would want me. Because of a nerve disorder, I could only walk with the aid of crutches. I called and spoke to a caseworker who assured me that a perfect physique was not one of the criteria in order to be accepted into the program.

After completing the initial orientation process, Mandy, my caseworker, told me she would get back to me in a few weeks after a potential Little Sister match was made. A short time later, Mandy called and said, “I have the perfect Little Sister for you. Her name is Karen, and she is eight years old.”

Perfect, I thought, what a great age—young enough for Disney movies and old enough to have amusing conversations.

Mandy continued, “The reason I think she is so perfect for you is because she is legally blind.”

Usually I’m pretty good at keeping my thoughts from blurting out of my mouth, but in this case, I couldn’t. “Are you nuts?” I said. “Me leading the blind? What kind of match is that? I can’t even hold her hand because I have to hold onto my crutches. This is a crazy idea, Mandy!”

“I knew you would say that, Beth, but let me tell you why I’m convinced you’re the right match. Karen’s mother is blind, and her older sisters are legally blind, too. I want Karen exposed to someone with a disability that doesn’t let it affect her life. You’d be such a good role model for her. You can show her that she can be anything she wants to be and do anything she wants to do, despite a physical challenge.”

That was a pretty hard rationale to resist, so I agreed to meet with Karen. Over a soda, this adorable little eight-year-old, with thick magnifying glasses, and I discussed how we could adapt our special needs to each other. “Could you hang on to my shirt or coat instead of my hand and promise you would never run away from me?” She nodded in agreement. She asked if I could let her know when land was uneven or whether stairs went up or down. That seemed reasonable enough for me to accomplish, so, on a handshake of agreement, we became sisters.

When Karen was ten, she said to me one day, “Do you know why we get along so well, Beth?”

“What do you think?” I responded.

“We both have the same haircut, we both love art, we both wear glasses, we’re both handicapped, and we don’t even mind that we are,” she answered with a smile. Karen’s remark was proof-positive that Mandy had made a wise choice in this unlikely pairing.

During our years together, Karen and I have had a lot of fun. We have tasted different foods of the world at ethnic restaurants and fairs, attended concerts ranging from classical to jazz to rock, gone on marine biology and rock-hunting expeditions and visited museums and zoos. We’ve done countless other activities ranging from the more mundane tasks of planting gardens and cooking to the excitement of day-trips to explore New York City.

Today, Karen is fifteen, and I still get incredible joy listening to her share her dreams and goals—just like any other fifteen-year-old. One day she is going to be a writer, another day a teacher or a seeing-eye dog trainer. Karen has a practical approach. She knows there will be challenges, but she also knows there is no limit as to how far she can go if she doesn’t limit herself.

Beth Barrett

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, contact 230 N. 13th St., Philadelphia, PA 19107; 215-567-7000; fax: 215-567-0394; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site:]

“I’d like to trade in my big sister for another one.”

Reprinted by permission of Tom Prisk.

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