`I'M closer to her than my own sisters,'' says Linda Courtney about her relationship with her ``little sister,'' Tina (not her real name). Ms. Courtney and Tina became ``sisters'' in 1982 when they were matched through the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston Inc. They were also one of the early matches in a special program dubbed PAIR for Pregnant/Parenting Adolescent in Relationship. The PAIR program is an outgrowth of the Boston agency's basic program, established in 1950, which matches female volunteers with girls between seven and 15 years old. Any girl who needs a role model for any number of reasons is a candidate for the basic program.
In 1981 a pilot program of PAIR started matching pregnant or parenting teen-age girls with volunteers.
``We were finding that there were some girls in our program that were getting pregnant. It seemed a natural for us, since we work with girls,'' explains Jerry Martinson, director of Boston's Big Sister Association.
Sisters matched before delivery
The PAIR program remains faithful to the original concept of Big Sister. ``It's the same thing as in our basic program - helping a child to be everything she can be. Except these are children who have children,'' says Ms. Martinson.
PAIR supports pregnant girls up to the age of 19 who have decided to keep their babies. The idea is to match them before the baby is delivered. But teen-agers don't always recognize the difficulties they'll be facing until after the babies are born. Therefore, the agency will match girls with big sisters up until the baby is one year old.
Big Sister volunteers to PAIR must be at least 23 years old - rather than the minimum of 20 in the basic program. Ideally, volunteers are parents themselves and may have experienced some of the difficulties of young, single motherhood. But this is not a specific requirement.
The organization requires volunteers to make a time commitment of four hours a week for 18 months. Before a volunteer is matched with a little sister, she must attend a six-hour training session - orientation and education about adolescent pregnancy and parenting.
For the little sisters, ``the only requirement to get into the PAIR program is that you are a teen-age parent or a pregnant teen-ager. You can be married, you can be living with your parents, mom, dad, 2.3 kids, white picket fence - the whole bit,'' says Bonnie Spicer, PAIR coordinator.
These are not necessarily girls with severe problems or troubled homes. The agency's theory is that just being a pregnant teen-ager is enough to ``make you want a special friend, someone outside of your home who cares and is just for you,'' Ms. Spicer comments.
Currently the program has 18 matches of big and little sisters in the PAIR program. Expansion is planned for the near future, but it's a tough recruiting job, according to Martinson. A particular need is for black big sisters.
``The success of the program has been the kids that have gone on to get GEDs [General Educational Development certificates] and further schooling,'' says Martinson.
Tina is one such success. She received her GED and nurse's aid certificate and then attended a two-year program at Newbury College for a degree in medical assistance. Tina has plans to go back to school and become a registered nurse - something she has always wanted to be.
Tina, now a quietly confident 24-year-old, came into the program when she was 19 and a new teen-age mother. She gives her big sister a great deal of credit for her success.
``College was the last thing on my mind before I met Linda,'' says Tina. ``I said many no's, but she never heard it.''
With a hint of bitterness at the great obstacles facing single mothers trying to better themselves, Linda Courtney comments, ``I put myself through college when my son was 2 with no help from anybody, including my parents, so I think it made for a better argument.''
Ms. Courtney's pride in Tina's accomplishments is unmistakable. But her social responsibility extends further: ``I'd like to see more single mothers taking advantage of Dukakis's ET program.''
Gov. Michael Dukakis's Employment and Training program covered Tina's child care and transportation expenses while she was in school.
Day care is an obstacle for many of the little sisters. This is an area where the big sisters are encouraged to help the parenting little sisters find answers without becoming baby sitters themselves. ``A big sister is someone to talk with and someone to be friends with, but it's not a baby sitter,'' says Tina.
Her friend stood by
Ms. Courtney and Tina have overcome many obstacles and pushed through great difficulties together during their five-year relationship. Tina recalls the time she called Courtney in the middle of the night after a suicide attempt. ``There was nobody else. No way would I call my mother,'' she says.
Tina was taken to the hospital, where she wanted to remain - away from the problems she was facing with her boyfriend and children. Courtney had the hospital officials give Tina a tour of the ward.
``That changed my mind,'' Tina says with a confident laugh, revealing how far she has come from that time of confusion and despair. ``I never want to be in that position again. The feeling of not having any control over your life - that feeling was the worst.''
Courtney helped Tina get one of her first jobs by introducing her as ``my little sister.''
Second pregnancies among little sisters are a major concern, according to Spicer, the program coordinator. Nationally, 43 percent of all teen-age mothers will have a second baby within three years of their first child, according to a recent report by the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group.
When Tina became pregnant for the second time, ``I felt like I'd failed,'' says Courtney.
``To me, a happy family had to be a big family. Linda proved to me that small families can be happy, too,'' explains Tina.
When asked how her life might be different if Courtney hadn't been there, Tina says, ``I probably would have had a lot of babies, still be on welfare - and who knows? - that time [after the suicide attempt] could have been a lot worst.''
But she doesn't think much about those things these days. Instead she's concentrating on going back to school and giving back some of what she's received.
``I want to be a big sister someday,'' Tina says enthusiastically. ``And I think I'd choose the PAIR program.''