By Sarah Elmquist Squires
They become more confident in everything from their school work to relationships. They’re less likely to skip school. They get along better with their families. Studies show that kids who find a mentor they can lean on have an edge as they grow through an impressionable time toward adulthood: They have a Big.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a national program that pairs adult and teen mentors with kids, and it’s a relationship that can make a big difference in the lives of young people. For Liz Lightener of Lander and her Little, Purple, the five years they’ve spent doing everything from whitewater rafting to rock climbing and just hanging out have ignited a special relationship that has benefitted them both.
“She keeps me grounded,” Lightener said in an interview. The two were named the 2020 BBBS match of the year, and in an essay, Lightener admitted she learns just as much from Purple as Purple learns from her. “She’s always teaching me patience, humility, and gratitude,” she wrote. “Purple has also taught me to go with the flow – to take the time I’m given, and to not have expectations of how things should go or what will be done … After hanging out for the past five years, we are more like mentors to one another now.”
Last week the two were matching yellow, pink, green, blue, and Purple’s namesake in strands of ribbon, working together on sewing colorful ribbon skirts for Purple’s sisters, and one she’ll wear on game day for her volleyball team. Sometimes, when they get together, they’ve got a car packed in case of adventure; sometimes, they just stroll Main Street and stop for ice cream. “We don’t always know what we’re going to do,” Lightener explained. “We just kind of make it up as we go.”
When they’re in adventure mode – like whitewater rafting down the Wind River, or one time, flying in an airplane with Purple spotting her home from above – sometimes things can seem a little scary at first. When the pair went mountain biking in Sinks Canyon the ride was intimidating at first, but as soon as Purple had given it a chance, she was flying down the trail. Even when she flipped over her handlebars, she got right back up and back in the saddle. “Whether we’re skating, climbing, or biking, there’s always a lesson to learn,” Lightener wrote of their adventures. “We only fail if we decide not to get back up and try again. It’s not about perfection, it’s about practice and progress – such is life!”
What does Purple like the most about Liz? “That’s she’s funny,” she shared. In her essay, Purple wrote that the two have made a ton of memories over the years. When they went whitewater rafting, she wrote, “I was scared at first, but once we went past the first couple rapids, I felt so happy … I trust Liz a lot, like a thousand years.”
Hanna Slinger of BBBS Wyoming said the mentorship program can give a boost to just about anyone. “At the end of the day what we’re really doing is making friendships, and I don’t know many people who couldn’t use another friend in their life,” she said. People from all demographics and walks of life are part of BBBS, and Bigs and Littles are always needed. “Our mission as an organization is to create mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth … We also know that the number-one predictor of whether a child develops resiliency is if they have an adult they know they can trust.”
“Purple is so gifted having Liz as her Big,” Purple’s grandmother wrote in her essay as part of the pair’s 2023 Match of the Year nomination (because of Covid, the two never got their party when they won in 2020). “Liz is a blessing to us.”
Lightener herself had a Big Sister when she was a kid, growing up in Pittsburg, literally in “Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” down the street from a Nabisco plant that wafted the scent of animal crackers every day. That relationship fueled her drive to volunteer as a big, and in other mentorship programs over the years. “I would love to see more Bigs and Littles in this town,” she said of the need for more volunteers.
During their interview, Lightener and Purple were working on sewing, and just hanging out at Lightener’s place. Purple was doing headstands while chatting. The two were describing all of the fun activities they’ve done together – oftentimes, they go bowling. “Are you sick of bowling yet Purple?” Lightener asked. “No!”
Purple offered some advice in her essay for a Big who might be having a hard time connecting with their Little. “I would recommend they take their Little to the park,” she wrote. “Liz and I do that a lot and we’ve always been able to connect.”
If you’re interested in volunteering as a Big, or have a Little that could use one, reach out to SJ O’Neill at 307-466-4043. If you’d like to donate, visit https://bbbswyo.org/.