A bath of sunshine lights up the courtyard as Kelly Carew throws the basketball to Amari Owens. Amari lunges to the left. Kelly goes to the right. As the basketball slaps the pavement, they laugh and mimic each other's movements. "You're getting great at shooting," Kelly calls out. Amari beams and passes the ball back to Kelly.
Twelve-year-old Amari and 30-something Kelly are more than friends. For the past three three years, they've been a match in the Big Brother Big Sisters program, an organization that pairs children from single-parent families with mentors from the community. Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC marks its 30th anniversary this month and Kelly and Amari have plenty of reasons to celebrate.
"30 years, that's amazing," says Kelly. "What a great longevity of a nonprofit to be able to last for that long and continue to build on the lives that they impact." The program has nourished countless relationships over the years, ensuring that children with just one parent in their lives have another adult they can count on. "For 30 years, we have been a stable and consistent program in these children's lives," says Robin Myer, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC.
Kelly and Amari share birthdays, summer camp and 5K races. They go rafting, ride go-carts and skip stones in the river. Today they're playing carnival games outside UNCA, waiting for the Charlotte Bobcats to take the court. "She likes basketball, so when I saw that the Bobcats were coming here, I was like, 'Oh, she'll love that.'
While they wait for the game to start, Amari and Kelly race to the inflatable bounce house on the other side of the courtyard. They squeeze through the opening and launch themselves off the floor, high-fiving each other as they come back down. They giggle like sisters sharing a secret. "I would say that I feel like I'm a part of their family, now that it's been three years," says Kelly.
For Amari, today's game is a chance to explore her future. She wants to be a basketball or soccer coach someday and plans to go to UNCA for college. Kelly has helped Amari thrive through the challenges of middle school. "My grades had started slipping, but then when I met Kelly my grades started rising up more," says Amari. "She was a good tutor."
Amari's mother, Pearley Hampton, has been an integral part of Amari's experience with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Like many single parents, Pearley sought out the organization as a way to give Amari another role model. "She's a great mom and she just wanted Amari to have somebody else to connect with," says Kelly. The program also gives Pearley a chance to take a break and relax, a luxury for a busy working mom. "She loves it," says Amari. "It's giving me something to do and giving her some rest time."
Kelly has literally watched Amari grow over the years. When they first met, Amari had to lift her chin to talk to Kelly. Now the 12-year-old looks down on Kelly's shoulder. "I thought she was hilarious and full of energy and very excited," remembers Kelly. Executive director Robin Myer says that this kind of enthusiasm exemplifies the bond that Bigs and Littles share. "[Amari and Kelly] represent what we value as a program –– a strong, consistent two-way relationship between an adult and a young person who truly care for and respect each other."
Amari wants to be a Big Sister when she gets older and Kelly is another person in her life that can help her develop the kindness, patience and positive attitude that being a Big Sister requires. Kelly gives Amari the encouragement she needs to feel good about herself and try new things. "When I hang out with Kelly I feel safer, like hardly anything bad will ever happen," says Amari. "She watches over me very much."
Kelly and Amari's afternoon at UNCA is proof that with something as simple as a basketball and a net, a caring adult can help a child succeed. The pair are just two of the matches that Big Brothers Big Sisters has brought together over the years and in honor of its 30th anniversary, the organization hopes to match 60 new adults with 60 children in need. With mentors like Kelly and up-and-coming Big Sisters like Amari, Big Brothers Big Sisters has many years of love and support in its future.
Jen Nathan Orris can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos by Max Cooper.