Big Sisters

“Cool, calm, collected, encouraging, there for me when I needed,” are the words mentor Anna Wolvers uses to describe her late mentor. After her mom died when she was 5, Anna got set up with mentor Sue Thompkins through her school counselor. Sue provided the support Anna needed at the time. Anna said, “It wasn’t a traditional match. Even after the match officially ended, or when I went abroad, we remained in touch.”

For Anna, mentoring is generational: after Sue passed away 3 years ago, Anna decided to pay it forward and become a mentor in Sue’s honor. She hoped to be a stabilizing presence—cool, calm, collected, encouraging, and present—for a girl like her 5 year-old self. Through this match, Anna is also helping her mentee’s parents increase their skills in reading, writing, language, and life.

When Maria met Anna, the mentee was struggling to learn English and had trouble in some academic areas. English isn’t spoken or read frequently in Maria’s home, so school and homework presented her a unique challenge. Together, Maria and Anna practice reading and writing in English, and have seen a lot of progress.

Maria loves getting to play ‘big sister’ to younger children in Anna’s care. She is exceptionally kind in school as well. When asked about her Little Sister, Anna says, “She’s very kind and caring, compassionate to others, especially the lower functioning. She feels bad for kids who don’t get invited to parties and asks them to hang out with us.” Anna tells me how Maria asks to bring other children who need extra time and attention with them. Sometimes multiple other children will show up with Maria, and Anna says there are times she has to ask for special time with her mentee so they can get the space they need to practice reading and just hang out.

“She loves structure and routine,” Anna says about Maria. “It can be hard for her to stay focused on reading sometimes, but I think she enjoys the hard work. There was one time we were hanging out and she had been doing really well with reading recently. She told me she didn’t need to read anymore.” Anna, being a teacher by trade, laughed and pointed at her stacks of books to say, “Even I need to practice so I don’t lose it. That’s why I have a summer reading list.” So Maria picked up a book and practiced reading.

When they’re not reading together or playing with younger children under Anna’s care, Anna and Maria enjoy going new places like Adventureland as well as cooking.

“Most kids are picky eaters,” says Anna. “But not Maria.” She tells me how she made Tilapia with her mentee—“Nothing fancy; I don’t eat a lot of fish or even really like it”—but Maria ate three pieces. “She loved it! Just the simple tilapia. She asked me to teach her how to bake it.” For Anna, passing on practical skills like cooking and baking is very nostalgic: “That’s what my big sister did after our mom died…having my big sister there to show me to do the holiday cookies and things like that…now I get to do that for Maria.”

Anna loves getting to be a big sister to Maria and see her experience new things. “Maria worries a lot,” Anna tells me. “She worries about her parent’s health” (Maria’s mom has a memory disability and some physical health concerns) “and things kids shouldn’t have to think about.” When the two hang out, Anna gets to calm some of Maria’s worries and fears. “She doesn’t need to think about those things. Those are adult worries. I tell her to focus on being a kid.”

Maria, now 12 years old, told Anna one time, “You’ve changed me. I used to be really behavioral at home, used to go to therapy, school was a real challenge…but I love reading now.” Anna tells me with a huge smile that “[Maria] wants to be a mentor and a foster mom when she grows up. I asked her why, and she told me she learned from the best!”

Anna adds, “She’s very intuitive. It breaks my heart to see her struggle with academics because she can’t remember very well. Maria has independently discovered apps—reading apps on her phone, like the Bible app, and she uses those. She’s really good, she wants to learn, and knows her limitations and will tell people; ‘reading is hard for me. I have dyslexia.’” Maria knows things on a more in-depth level than most kids her own age. She does a great job for advocating for herself and her needs, and that makes Anna proud to see. Anna knows she’ll go far in life with those skills.

 “You see how much they struggle,” Anna says about mentoring. “But they are so kind and generous…It’s rewarding for sure, but it’s not always easy…what little you do has a ripple effect. You don’t even know how you’re impacting them, but you are.” Anna looks forward to more years with Maria reading, playing with foster kids, doing nursery, and trying new things in the kitchen. Anna has become so close with Maria and her family that they are considering getting paperwork for Anna to be Maria’s godparent.

“The world is a busy, busy place but God has given us a purpose to love others. In the end, is God gonna be more focused on our excuses of busyness, or the impact we made on others?”

Anna Wolvers runs her own business, teaches, is a foster mom and mentor, and is fundraising to build a slash pad in Marshalltown. “If I can be this busy and mentor, so can others. Your mentees will probably enjoy doing what you do, and helping others as well.”

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