I went to a "Big Sister Big Brother" training session last night and only wish I had attended it earlier in the programme, as it gave me some terrifying context into what my little sister's life is like.
My childhood was clearly so sheltered & idyllic that I didn't even conceive of the kind of things that the children we are mentoring are exposed to or are experiencing first hand.
Sure they are going through the same upheavals we all did as young teenagers - peer as well parental pressure, the desire to fit in, feeling uncomfortable about how they look, worrying about grades ...
But this is New York City and they face a lot of other, darker problems I never confronted as a child. Gangs - not just as a victim of them but also the pressure to actually be in one. Crime - the police raid their schools regularly, weapons are commonly carried and it is likely that they have seen someone being stabbed at some point. Drugs and alcohol - pot is passe and mixing up cocaine and amphetamines is all the rage apparently. And even sex - I was shocked to hear that the city had to eradicate the very popular "rainbow game" that girls as young as 10 were playing in all the schools: they would wear bracelets of different colours, each representing a sexual act and if a boy snapped one of them, they would have to perform that act on him.
Our "Littles" (we're the "Bigs") all come from inner city schools and receive benefits. This means that they live on or below the poverty line, which is a shocking $17,000 a year for a family of 3! I can't conceive of anyone being able to survive, let alone live, in one of the most expensive cities in the world on just $17,000, when this figure barely covers half of my rent for the year.
This leaves me with a moral dilemma ... How can I possibly justify my rather shallow lifestyle - centered around working, going out, traveling and dealing with boy troubles - when someone much younger and more vulnerable than me is going through trials I will never experience in my entire life? The guilt is something all the Bigs go through but it doesn't make it any easier to cope with.
I am more determined than ever before to make a difference for my Little, to be there for her and to be as much of a positive role model as I can be. Our last session was a vast improvement on the previous two as she is starting to feel more comfortable around me, and me around her.
There is a certain irony in the fact that it is taking a child to make me grow up a little at last ...