A huge smile spreads across Debbie Welch’s face as she talks about Devine, her Little Sister. Welch — an Asheville resident and the 2022 North Carolina Big Sister of the Year — first paired with Devine in 2013, when the youth was 7 years old.
Since that time, Welch says she has established trust with her Little Sister through fun activities and conversations on complex issues. Her outreach also includes constant communication with Devine’s mother, Desire, as well as food and medicine delivery to the family, when needed.
When the pandemic disrupted their face-to-face visits, Welch worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC to devise safe ways to provide the emotional support that Devine and her family needed.
“I just assume everyone would do what I’ve been doing,” she says.
A former teacher, Welch moved to WNC in 1976. She later left the profession to raise a family, before reentering the workforce in 1987 as Crystal Clean, a community outreach character for Quality Forward (now Asheville GreenWorks). With her blue cape on, she visited elementary and middle schools to promote the importance of litter control and recycling.
After her final career change, Welch retired as Buncombe County’s public information officer in 2003. Searching for a post-retirement activity, she notes her love for children led her to become a Big Sister.
“I was looking for something meaningful,” she says.
Xpress recently sat down with Welch to discuss her 2022 award and the joys of being a Big Sister.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What was it like to meet your Little Sister and her family the first time?
I was excited. [Bernadette Joy Cruz], the staff member who was in charge of matching Bigs with Littles, came along. She helped lead the meeting by explaining what Devine’s mom was hoping for with the match and what Joy believed that Devine and I had in common. That was very helpful in breaking the ice. The staff has been very available with suggestions and support. I don’t feel alone in this.
What are some activities you enjoy doing with your Little Sister?
We always go for ice cream. That’s our signature move. When she gets excited, I get excited. We just went to the Tourists game, and they got killed!
We used to meet every other week. It has been less frequent since the pandemic. As a little girl, she loved playgrounds, rock hopping in Montreat and other activities meant for little kids.
Now that she is a teenager, the choices are more limited, but our conversations are more meaningful. We still try to do things as the pandemic allows, but I truly enjoy our talks, which can be over ice cream or during hikes. I also attend her orchestra and chorus concerts and sports activities.
What are you most proud of in your journey as a Big Sister?
As a child of the ’50s in segregated settings, I had very few opportunities to befriend African Americans in any real way. While I taught integrated classes, I had no close friends who were Black. I cherish the relationship I’ve been able to establish with [Devine and her] family in an era when white people and men are realizing the privileges they’ve had and taken for granted.
It’s almost invisible to me — the difference between what I can do [as a white person] and what Devine can do. It’s almost like a lamentation to watch some of the kinds of things that would happen [due to racial differences] when I took her to places where almost everyone there was white. … That was learning firsthand for me, personally, about [white] privilege. And I cherish that because I think it’s made me a richer, smarter and more in-touch person.
What else is involved in being a Big Sister?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but with Devine there have been many health, school and family challenges. I have supported her mom, grandmother and Devine with phone calls, visits and other assistance while appreciating the line between supporter and savior. They do not need a savior, and that is not the role I want to play.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to be a Big Sister or Big Brother?
I have adored being a Big Sister. It has given me a sense of purpose. And I guess if I had some advice, it would be to enter the relationship wide open. I have heard of people trying to imprint their value system on their Little [Sister/Brother], because they thought, “Oh, this person’s going to need a different set of values.”
You might make assumptions that are wrong. Be open. Listen. Don’t assume. You don’t have to have the answers because you’ll learn a lot in the process.
Nurturing little humans tends to be a female pursuit. For a variety of reasons, males aren’t drawn to Big Brother Big Sister at the same level. And there are lots of Little Brothers out there, and they don’t have a Big Brother. So if I had anything I’d like to get across to potential Big Brothers, it’d be this: When you go to an activity with somebody who’s never done it before and start seeing it through their eyes, it’s like that initial joy you had when you were a child going to your first baseball game. You get to have it all over again! And at the same time, you get to feel good about yourself for having helped that child have that first experience.