Real Life Stories

By Cara Rosner

It may seem like a small gesture to some, but spending a few hours a month one-on-one with a caring adult can have a tremendous impact on a young person.  Just ask Darrien from Hamden.

Darrien was paired with “Big” Kristina Olson in the fall of 2009, after her social worker suggested she look into Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Connecticut.

“I’m personally someone who is very active and doesn’t like to stay in one place for too long,” said Darrien, now 18. “Unfortunately, because my parents had dedicated themselves to caring for my sick younger brother, leaving the house as a family was quite difficult.”

With no other siblings, she said, “Having a ‘Big Sister’ seemed like the perfect way to satisfy both my need to be active and my desire for a close friend.”

Little did she know just how strong and meaningful her bond with Olson would become.

All children deserve the opportunity to have a good life. A key ingredient in ensuring they get that chance is having a trusted, caring adult in their lives. That’s why United Way of Greater New Haven strategically works with partners that foster that crucial bond between youths and positive role models.

Among our partners in this area is Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Connecticut, which matches young “Littles” with volunteer, adult “Bigs” who spend one-on-one time with youths doing activities they both enjoy.

United Way works with Big Brothers Big Sisters in two ways: as a funding source for its community-based program and as a partner in three school-based programs in Boost! schools. In the Boost! schools, the “Bigs” are high school students who pair with elementary school “Littles.” (Boost! is an innovative partnership among United Way, the city of New Haven and New Haven Public Schools that give students the non-academic supports they need to succeed in school.)

United Way has a long-standing partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters. The latter’s mission coincides with both our Success By 6 and School Age Youth work, in which we work to ensure all children enter school ready to learn and have the supports they need to do well there.

Having a role model in their lives has a profound effect on young people, said Ellen Tracy, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Connecticut. “They feel their relationships with peers and family improve,” she said, and “almost 100 percent improve their (school) attendance.”

“It’s all about having another adult in your life that cares,” she said. Littles, who are 6 to 14 years old, come to the organization for a variety of reasons, she said. Some have been acting out in school, others are referred by a teacher or social worker, and some are young boys who are being raised by women and simply need a male role model.

When Darrien came to Big Brothers Big Sisters, she admits she initially was skeptical of the process. But a genuine friendship between her and Olson blossomed far beyond what either expected at the outset. Together they went to see musicals, went bowling, visited area famers’ markets – things Darrien hadn’t had the opportunity to do before. 

In the fall of 2013, Darrien began her freshman year at Fairfield University, having earned significant scholarships. Olson took her to all of her college visits and interviews, since Darrien’s family was unable.

“I feel like I gained so much from her and watching her deal with all life had in store for her and her family,” Olson said. “She was a great student and had overcome a lot.”

Their bond grew so deep that after Olson relocated in May from New Haven to the West Coast for work, she flew back later that month to watch Darrien graduate from Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden. The two had first met on Darrien’s second day of high school.

They still keep in touch. Olson plans to visit Darrien at school in Fairfield and hopes Darrien will come to the West Coast to visit her. “I’ll know her forever,” Olson said.