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One-way ticket to kid world

Emily and I show off a freshly made pot of dirt pudding. Holly Kays photo Emily and I show off a freshly made pot of dirt pudding. Holly Kays photo

My car is usually something of a mess, a magnet for loose papers, empty food wrappers and an impressively random assortment of items packed for some excursion or another but never returned to their proper place. Such was the case the day of my first-ever outing as a big sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and so I judiciously set aside a few minutes before leaving to clear out the passenger seat — though mostly by tossing all the junk covering it into the back. 

When I arrived at the house, my new best friend Emily, age 8, was ready and waiting on the porch. She gave me a bear hug, and to my surprise bypassed the passenger door of the car to attempt a climb into the now doubly messy back seat. 

Of course, I realized. Eight-year-olds sit in the back. I felt foolish as I realized how long it had been since I’d hung out in kid world.

Fast-forward 18 months, and my kid world experience level has risen substantially. Emily and I have gone hiking and swimming, produced a variety of culinary creations, made friends at church, watched movies together and taken the playground by storm, among other adventures. As it turns out, kid world is pretty fun. 

But it can also be a scary, uncertain place. Hanging out with Emily, who turned 10 in May, has reminded me about this aspect of childhood — being surrounded by all these realities I was too young to understand but old enough to be troubled by, feeling the earth shift beneath my feet as each passing day imparted some new proof of the oncoming onset of adulthood. Em and I spend plenty of time laughing and playing and being silly, but there are the serious moments, too: the ones where we talk out some struggle or another festering at home or school, face down a display of pre-teen attitude or wrestle with any of the innumerable mysteries of life. 

I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters mostly from a logic-driven place. I’d been in Haywood County for three years at the time and felt increasingly uncomfortable with how little I’d managed to engage any kind of service or volunteerism. My erratic schedule as a newspaper reporter had a lot to do with that — it just wouldn’t be possible to commit to any regular schedule without ending up bailing half the time. I liked the sound of Big Brothers Big Sisters, because the schedule was so flexible. It could be whatever you and your little agreed on, varying from month to month or week to week, and with a minimum requirement of two hangouts a month for a couple hours apiece, it really wasn’t a huge time commitment. 

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Soon, though, my life as a big sister left the realm of extracurricular commitment to look a lot more like a simple relationship — just with some extra paperwork behind it. 

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Emily and Arti take a snack break while taking a hike. Holly Kays photo

In the course of the last year and a half, Emily and I have gotten to know each other pretty well. We both love being outside, and she’s as interested in knowing the names of our various Southern Appalachian trees and flowers as I am. She loves rocks, and anytime we take a hike there better be an available pocket or bag to accommodate all the specimens she’s sure to find for her collection. Emily is always happy to be in the kitchen and wants to be a chef when she grows up. She’s the first to offer a hand if somebody needs help, and she’s got this great mixture of stubbornness and gentleness that give her the raw materials to mature into a good leader. 

It’s been wonderful and rewarding to discover all of that, piece by piece. 

In some ways, I’d say that’s the point of the program — to give kids the chance to have their talents discovered and nurtured by a trusted adult, other than their parents. Anyone who’s ever been a kid knows that there are certain seasons in life when Mom or Dad just “don’t get it” (seasons typically accompanied by lots of harrumphing and slamming of doors), and that any extra stability in a world that often seems so vigorously unstable can only be a good thing.

But it’s a relationship as much as it is a program, and relationships go two ways. I’ve seen some good changes in myself through my time with Emily. I’ve learned to be more flexible, and a little less territorial with my time. I’ve learned to be more relaxed about the way things are done, more willing to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of creating memories. We’ve spilled sugar, severely depleted tubes of lipstick and hairspray, and on countless occasions made a mess of our clothes — but the value of those memories more than makes up for whatever was lost in the process. 

In adult world, we place a lot of emphasis on being careful and clean and responsible, but kid world is different. Yeah, frugality and cleanliness and responsibility are all well and good. But at some point, you’ve got to remember your priorities — and fun is at the top of the list.

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