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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Highlands Grad Comes Full-Circle with Big Brothers Big Sisters Program

Kara Olson with her Little Sister, Janae.

When it comes to raising families, we've all heard the ubiquitous saying that "it takes a village." Just like real life villages, some are large, some are small, some are filled with family, and some with friends that become family. And of course, just like in actual villages, there's always room for the village idiot (not that any of us would know anything about that, right?).

For Kara Olson, her village also included a volunteer from Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Cincinnati while she was growing up in Fort Thomas. Olson currently lives and works in Pittsburgh while also attending graduate school. Her experience with BBBS has now come full circle for her as she serves as a Big Sister in Pittsburgh. 
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Olson first became involved with BBBS after her older brother, Bret Olson, was matched with his Big Brother in elementary school. The Olsons' father passed away when Bret was five and Kara was just two and half years old, and a neighbor suggested that they look into the BBBS program. “Mom was looking for a male influence for Bret, and BBBS sounded like a great one. After I saw the great time that Bret had, I decided it was something I wanted to do too and begged my mom to sign me up," said Olson.

Olson was matched with her Big Sister, Kelly, when she was a fifth grader at Woodfill Elementary School. "My mom was super busy as a single parent mother, and so having a female mentor in my life that was not my mom was invaluable," said Olson.

Through her relationship with Kelly and the BBBS organization, Olson was able to gain perspectives that would positively impact her personally and professionally. Kelly worked for P&G while serving as Olson's Big Sister, and Olson fondly remembers going with her to career day and learning about the various companies in Cincinnati. “I have always been interested in Cincinnati and working in cities, and even though Fort Thomas was just across the river, I didn't go there often. I was able to see a different life outside of Fort Thomas. That was so beneficial for me. I saw there were options for college and careers, and I had someone (besides family) to support me in that endeavor. It is so important to have an adult outside of your parents that you can talk to,” said Olson.

After settling in Pittsburgh in 2011, becoming a Big Sister was a no-brainer for Olson. "BBBS had such an impact on me (and my family) that I knew it was something I wanted to participate in once I got settled in a city," said Olson. "BBBS of Pittsburgh only requires a year commitment, but I wanted to be able to commit to something for longer."

Olson then completed a lengthy application and interview process before being matched with her Little Sister, Janae, in 2013. Olson is able to draw from her experiences growing up with a Big Sister to help create positive interactions with her Little Sister. "I remember all the small interactions growing up and how that influenced me. I was blessed to have an amazing mother, but all the more people the better: the more questions I could ask, the more people who listened, supported, and influenced. I think about that when I pick up Janae. Who is listening to her stories, who is supporting what she is trying to achieve? She has an amazing family, but any child with an extra support person is great," said Olson.

Like Olson points out, she was lucky to grow up in a supportive community surrounded by family and friends. BBBS was able to add another positive element to her upbringing, and was able to impact her life overall. However, many of the youth participating in BBBS do not have the same support system or are able to have the same advantages as children in the Fort Thomas community. BBBS volunteers may be one of the few positive forces in the lives of the program's participants, which is why BBBS continues to be an important organization throughout the nation.
The changes occuring in today's urban climates have made organizations like BBBS more vital than ever. 

“I honestly can't believe all the challenges my Little is facing, and that is another reason why I'm so glad to be doing this program. The number of changes that are occurring in urban centers affect many Little has had to move houses a few times since I've met her. The consistent change of neighborhoods and gentrification is affecting Pittsburgh, but thankfully she is staying in the same school district, with the same friends, and I see it as more of a reason for me to be a constant in her life, because many things change,” said Olson.

The beautiful thing about programs like BBBS is that on the surface it seems as though the benefits are one-sided, and it's primarily the mentee that gains from the experience. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Just as the volunteers are helping change lives for children and teens throughout the country, those same kids are changing the lives of their Big Brothers and Big Sisters. “I've grown so much being with Janae,” said Olson. “I say all the time that BBBS is the best thing I've done in Pittsburgh. I am continually impressed and inspired by her, I see her grow, I see how she affects me and what I am working towards with urban development with my degree. She is amazing and influences me daily.” 

Just as Olson's Big Sister was able to be a constant pillar of support for her and inspired her to see different possibilities for life outside of her comfort zone, Olson is able to do the same for Janae.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you thank you thank you---to Kara for sharing your story about being a Little Sister AND a Big Sister! Your words and experience go right to the heart of the Big Brothers Big Sisters mission. All of us at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati are grateful for your years of involvement with, and commitment to, mentoring. And, thank you to Fort Thomas Matters for spreading the word--we are happy to hear from others who would like to get involved with our agency.