'Big Sisters' are more than just friends

Jerry Martinson lives in Lexington, Mass., with her husband and two young daughters. But a very special family member who lives 20 miles away is her "little sister," Doreen, a slim, somewhat shy 16-year-old with braces, platform shoes, and a vogue haircut.

Their "sisterhood" began when Doreen, then seven years old, was living in subbasement apartment where she shared a bed with her mother, brother, and sister.

Doreen was matched to Jerry through the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston Inc. Every week for nine years since, they've met to talk, go shopping, play games, or just relax -- together.

Since 1950, the Big Sister agency in Boston has matched thousands of little sisters, aged 7 through 15, with big-sister volunteers over 20 who serve as role models.

A "big sister" is an all-purpose friend who helps with homework, goes on bike rides, encourages, prompts soothes, and laughs with her "little" sister. Together they are expected to spend at least four hours a week doing mostly inexpensive, ordinary things. Sometimes a picnic in a park or a conversation on a doorstep is the best remedy for a little girl's loneliness or indecision.

"Jerry's just like a sister," Doreen says.

Girls like Doreen are referred to Big Sister organizations by parents, school social workers, or guidance counselors. Once a match is made, consultation is arranged with the sisters and with the parents. The agency requires full consent of the family to help ensure that the big sister is accepted without jealousy or fear. A big sister is not a parent-substitute, the Boston group stresses, but a supplemental to parental care.

"For Doreen, just going somewhere with me was fun," Jerry explains. "She had never been in a car. The car radio fascinated her." Doreen has accompanied the family on vacations to Wisconsin ever since, and now, despite the growing social activities that come with adolescence, still meets her "big sis" every week.

Observing what a good education has brought to Jerry and her husband over the yers has been a motivating force for Doreen.

"Like I don't think I'd be as interested in getting educated if it wasn't for her," Doreen explains, "cause my family don't have education and hers kinda does."

"She watched us grow from a little two- room apartment to better and better places," Jerry says. "She's seen each move and seen why it happened. It showed her there are other ways -- that everyone doesn'tm get married at 17 or 18.

"Everyone doesn'tm drop out of school. Everyone doesn'tm live on welfare. Everyone doesn'tm have unwanted children. Everyone doesn'tm have their husband beat them. Everyone doesn'tm live in a single-parent family. . . . For Doreen it was a case of alternatives, whole new worlds opening up."

On her own initiative, Doreen enrolled in Upward Bound, a program that gives "disadvantaged" teen-agers a chance to visit a college campus and take self-improvement courses. She sacrificed the annual Wisconsin vacation with the Martinsons and a summer with her boyfriend to attend Brandeis University last year.

"I used to be kinda shy. Until June. Then I took a course in oral communication and learned how to talk in front of people," Doreen says.

Jerry talks exuberantly about Doreen's progress. "One time, she learned something new, some point of grammar, and she said to me, "Did you know that?' And I said, 'Well . . . yeah.' And she said, 'I didn't know that! Nobody ever told me.' She was so excited. Doreen has gone further -- as a sophomore -- than anyone in her family."

Doreen plans to go to college and says she wants to be a child psychologist. "Her mother's so proud of Doreen, because she's so different from anything she ever expected from her kids," Jerry adds.

Despite the rough moments and the 18- month commitment required of big sisters, there's some "getting," along with the "giving." Now Doreen plays big sisters to Jerry's 7-year-old Jennifer and 11-year-old Kim.

"It's been good for my kids to see that other kids don't have it as good as they do," Jerry says. She adds, "My kids see that material things don't mean anything if you're not happy with yourself."

jerry sees the role of the big sister as preventive, because many girls referred to the agency are recognized as having potential problems. "We're not dealing with delinquent kids, but with kids who need services we can give," she says.

Little sisters come from all races and economic backgrounds. One was Sandra, an only child living in a prosperous Los Angeles suburb with both parents. Her European mother spoke little English and was confused and fearful of American ways. She realized she could not give Sandra the guidance she needed to grow up normally among her peers. All Sandra required was exposure to new people, new ideas, and new experiences.

The mother called for help. With the support of a volunteer big sister, her fearful, withdrawn 12-year-old grew more outgoing. She has now graduated from college and recently traveled alone to Europe.

Unlike Sandra, most little sisters have only one parent in the home -- usually the mother.

Little sister Elaine shared a one-room Chicago apartment with a younger sister and a blind, alcoholic mother. She had no one to guide her and no knowledge of life outside of the conditions around her.

"To Elaine, a big sister was someone to call when she crawled out of her window to escape gang violence in her home and realized through her sobs that she had no shoes on," her Big Sister says. She saw Elaine through drugs and a pregnancy, went to court with her. Today Elaine is stable and well employed and is beginning a better life.

Her Big Sister is reluctant to take credit for the outcome. But she knows that having "an uncondemning friend" only a phone call away was to Elaine a measure of security in an otherwise volatile world.

At the Boston organization a prospective Big Sister must fill out an application that includes some tough questions:

* How would you handle it if your little sister said, "you're nicer than my mother?" And is she it in front of her mother?

* What would you do if she said, "What kind of birth control do you use?"

* What would you do if you felt the child's mother was doing something harmful to her daughter?

While there are no right or wrong answers, counselors say, the questions tend to weed out those who are not mature enough for the job.

The majority of Big Sisters are single women between ages 20 and 35, but many others are married, including students, career women, and homemakers. One staff counselor observes that more and more volunteers are those opting to have children later or not at all.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, which merged in 1973, is headquartered at 117 South 17th Street, 12th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19103.

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