They say family isn’t always blood – it’s those people willing to hold your hand when you need it most.
Winnipegger Melissa understands this message in a very personal way, holding hands as both a Big Sister – and a Little Sister – to nurture some of the most meaningful relationships of her life.
“You’re just choosing to be friends with someone who needs one,” she said.
“Often, that’s what young people need.”
Growing up in the city, Melissa’s mother raised her alone. While her mom was the best provider and caregiver she could be, there wasn’t always money or time to offer her daughter the support she wished she had.
“There was quite a bit of instability in my childhood,” Melissa recalled. “At times, we weren’t really connected to community.”
As a way to help ease the burden, Melissa’s mom signed her daughter up as a Little Sister at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg. As many as 700 young people every year are helped by the donor-supported organization, which matches volunteers and youth to build quality mentoring relationships.
Melissa remembers her first meeting with new Big Sister, Bev, at the McDonald’s on Portage Avenue. She was so nervous, but Bev made her feel at home.
“We hit if off right from the get-go,” Melissa said. “She really welcomed me in.”
From there, a friendship blossomed – and, with time, loyalty, and love, that friendship blossomed into something more: Big Sister and Little Sister became family.
Week after week, year after year, Bev and Melissa would share experiences, like heading to Winnipeg Jets hockey or Winnipeg Cyclone basketball games and spending time at Bev’s cabin.
Bev was there to celebrate major milestones in Melissa’s life – including her high school graduation and many birthdays. They even celebrated their match anniversary, October 5, with a trip to the Hotel Fort Garry’s revolving restaurant.
When Melissa and her mom needed to quickly move out of Winnipeg into rural Manitoba, everything in Melissa’s life was again upended – save for the one constant: Bev.
“Despite moving away from the city, Bev stayed connected to me. She was really the one stable person in my life that I could really depend on,” said Melissa, tearing up at the thought.
“I always get emotional when I talk about Bev.”
One day that’s difficult for Melissa to re-live is the day in 2011 when she received a call while she was in Toronto: Bev had been taken to the hospital, and she might not make it.
Melissa rushed back to Winnipeg, but sadly, Bev had already passed. At Bev’s funeral, Melissa was able to say her final goodbye to a stranger who had become a friend – who had become family.
“I took it really, really hard,” Melissa recalled. “She’d been in my life 17 years.”
One year later, when Melissa moved back to Winnipeg, she decided to honour Bev’s legacy in the most remarkable of ways – signing on to become a Big Sister herself.
“When Bev passed away, I took a lot of time to reflect. She had made such an incredible impact on my life and my mom’s life, too. I just don’t know how things would have happened without her,” Melissa said. “I just knew that I wanted to give back.”
Now, it’s Melissa’s turn as a Big Sister to make memories with her own Little Sister, Devyn.
Like Bev did for Melissa, Melissa now makes sure she’s always there for Devyn’s birthdays and special milestones, and the two go places and do things Devyn wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience because of her own challenging childhood.
“She’s a very strong young woman. It’s just really nice. She’s teaching me about K-Pop,” Melissa laughed, referring to Devyn’s love of Korean pop music.
Melissa said she wants people to know it doesn’t take a lot of time or energy to be a mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg.
It only takes an understanding of the healing power of community – and the willingness to hold someone’s hand when they need it the most.
“It’s not asking for much. You’re maybe asked to invest an hour our two hours of your week, just to be a friend,” Melissa said.
“It’s not a big ask – but it makes a big difference.”