Amelia “Ame” Yeager chose her 10-year-old “Little Sister” because of one word scrawled across the girl’s 2017 application.
Ten-year-old Brenda Canizal wrote the word large, in clear block print, and circled it at the top of her application. She was supposed to choose among an already-printed list of activities like cooking, dancing, reading, volleyball and playing video games and circle the ones she would like to do with a potential “Big Sister.”
“She actually wrote in skydiving and then circled it,” Yeager said. “When I saw that, it stuck out to me. She’s 10 and thinking about skydiving. It was like, boom, this is it. She is my ‘Little.’”
And she is.
Five years later, the two are Santa Cruz County’s Big Brother Big Sister pair of the year.
Just watching them together makes it clear why.
They are true pals, bonded. It’s obvious by how they giggle together, give each other knowing looks and how — in the video above — they tease and play off each other.
You can see the critical look Yeager gives Brenda — now 15 and full of charm and sass — when Brenda introduces herself on camera with a wad of gum in her mouth.
You can feel the chemistry. The closeness.
“Ame is the one who talked to me about sex for the first time,” Brenda said with a shrug and a giggle. “We talk about everything.”
That includes boys and bullying, breakups, grades, family dynamics and more.
Yeager sums up their relationship simply.
“I’m her person,” she said. “I am not her mom’s person or her dad’s person. I am Brenda’s person. In this program, you are mentoring a specific child. You see and feel the effect. It’s unlike any bond I have with anyone else.”
The program operates on a basic concept, backed by decades of studies: One-to-one youth mentoring helps mitigate poor choices, including drug use and the likelihood of later adult offenses. It’s particularly effective for at-risk youth.
The kids in the program come from the community’s at-risk and vulnerable populations, said Gabriela Trigueiro, who took over in December as executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Cruz County. That program includes foster youth, LGBTQ+ youth, children of farmworkers, families facing housing insecurity, and others who lack adult support.
“Our youth are three times more likely than their peers to have a family member battling mental health, addiction or be incarcerated, and twice as likely to be bullied,” she said. More than 86% of the program’s kids live in low-income households (57% of the families make less than $50,000).
Lookout’s Community Voices talked with the pair at Capitola’s Shadowbrook restaurant during the annual Big Brother Big Sister December holiday luncheon and gift giveaway. The restaurant hosts the event every year for the roughly 50 Santa Cruz County Big Brother Big Sister pairs.
Shadowbrook’s holiday décor — huge Christmas trees, wreaths, twinkling lights tucked in every corner — made the already opulent, wood-paneled, multilevel restaurant with rooms that wind into each other and a giant wood-burning fireplace bedecked with stockings feel brushed by magic.
The kids, ages 7 to 17, sipped hot cocoa (topped elaborately with swirls of whipped cream and a candy cane) and lunched on a lavish buffet overlooking the fairytale gardens.
Yeager, who runs the architectural division of Rosco Laboratories, an entertainment lighting company based in Connecticut, has always been involved in community giving, but this program, she says, makes her feel she is having a true impact.
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“I have done other volunteer work, but this — this is different. It is the most fun, but I can see what a difference I make in a kid’s life,” she said. “I had mentors my entire life. I was looking to share that with another person. This is one-on-one. It’s not one-to-massives.”
She and Brenda have done dozens of activities together. They keep lists by year and regularly add to them.
They also share their cultures with each other. Brenda tried her first pickle with Yeager. (“Imagine being 10 and never having tried a pickle?” Yeager said.) And Brenda recently sampled octopus.
Neither are experiences Brenda wants to repeat.
Several years ago, they were out together eating frozen yogurt and Yeager absentmindedly picked up a tissue that was on the ground. Brenda asked her why she would pick up someone else’s trash, which led to long discussions about the environment.
“She hadn’t seen people doing that growing up,” Yeager said. “It was fun to watch the idea land in her little mind.”
During COVID-19, they did several beach cleanups together.
Brenda is also teaching Yeager about her family’s traditions — including the rituals around her upcoming quinceañera. The two will perform a special dance together — although Yeager has serious doubts about how well she will master the complicated moves.
It’s all part of the fun, she says, a piece of their forever bond.
That’s what Brenda’s mom wanted when she put her in the program, Yeager said. To give her more than she as a parent could offer.
“She wanted her daughter to have a different perspective outside the Latino community. That is exactly what I wanted to do — to show a child different experiences, to share a part of my life, to give back.”
To find out more about joining the program as a Big or a Little, send an email here.
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