In 1997, eleven year old Alana was living with a father struggling with addiction. Her mom had passed away when she was only seven. Although Alana was still young enough to not fully realize the disadvantages she was facing, she was shy and didn’t see many possibilities in her life. That all began to change when she met Gina through Big Sisters that year.
“When I became a Big Sister I said to myself, I’m never going to do things for her, but I’m going to teach her what she can do,” says Gina. “All I tried to teach Alana was, if you want it, that’s enough.”
Gina started small. On one of their earliest outings, Gina asked Alana where she wanted to go. Stunned, Alana remained silent. Gina waited. She told Alana that if she didn’t express her opinion, then they simply weren’t going to do anything. Finally, Alana squeaked out a request to go to McDonalds.
“No one had ever asked me what I wanted to do,” Alana explains now.
The lessons grew bigger as their relationship grew stronger.
When Gina told Alana about a great experiential program for Lower Mainland students, Alana’s school counsellor dismissively told her she’d never get in. Gina told her that she could. And she did.
When Alana was told that she was “not really university material,” Gina vehemently disagreed and told Alana she should insist on getting the help she needed from her teachers. Alana did and she was the first person in her family to attend university.
“We call these ‘waterski moments’,” says Alana, and Gina nods knowingly.
Alana explains. Many years ago at the Big Sisters Camp, Alana wanted to go waterskiing but was too scared to join the group. When the waterskiing instructors started to pack up for the day, Alana realized she was about to miss out and begged them to take her out. She had a blast. When she was back on shore, Gina said to her, “Do you get it now? You almost let a fear prevent you from doing something you wanted to do.” Alana got it. It was a waterski moment.
From then on, Alana refused to let fear, barriers or people stand in her way. When she was 16, she wrote and printed a book of poems (“angsty teenage poems,” Alana says with a laugh) and sold the book so she could afford the plane fare to a volunteer gig in Vermont with the Student Conservation Association. With no money to pay for university, she and Gina applied for bursaries until she had enough money to pay for her tuition. In her early twenties she travelled and worked in Europe and Australia.
Today, at age 28, Alana is planning a wedding, studying graphic design, and purchasing her first condo.
“She could have been a statistic so easily,” says Gina, “But this program allowed this woman to figure out who she was. All we did [at Big Sisters] was to point out the doors and show her there was more than one she could go through.”
Alana agrees. “Big Sisters came to me at the exact right moment in my life. When I met Gina, the horizon in my life extended.”
As I snap photos of Gina and Alana, I realize that when people and things come into your life, you need to be open to the unknown and the possibilities they may bring. And I smile as I realize I might have just had my own waterski moment.
Written by Lisa Cloutier