Photo by Jim Graham

“When Sherice and I met each other,
she didn’t smile at me for three months,”
Judy Vredenburgh CW’70 was saying. “She barely talked. I would go every Wednesday after work to pick her up; and she was always clean, dressed, and ready to meet me—but we barely connected. She didn’t know who this stranger was, and she didn’t really trust me: ‘Who is this old lady coming into my life? She’s certainly not cool.’”

Vredenburgh, then in her early 50s, wasn’t too worried about her own lack of coolness. But even though she was getting encouraging feedback from Sherice’s mother and caseworker, she wondered if she was getting through to this bright, temperamental eighth-grader, whose grades and school-attendance had been plummeting. Then one night the two went to dinner at a local Thai restaurant. And suddenly Sherice opened up.

It came out that she had started a no-holds-barred fistfight at school the day before, and that the girl on the wrong end of it had been one of her friends. As she talked—and talked—it all came roiling out.

“You don’t go home and tell your mom, ‘I beat up my friend,’ but you tell your Big Sister,” says Vredenburgh. “I had built enough consistency that she trusted me enough to open up with me and share how horrible she felt, what a bad thing she had done. And frankly, I don’t know where she would have gone with that anger. She was so angry, so frustrated, and she felt so guilty, so bad—all of those emotions at the same time.”

It was a turning point. “I said, ‘This is not a great way to handle it. Just walk away—call me, call somebody else,’” recalls Vredenburgh. “She realized that nothing positive had come from beating up her friend—it had just made things worse.”

They kept talking, and eventually reached an agreement: Sherice would stay away from fights.

That was five years ago. In the intervening years, Sherice’s grades and attitude improved significantly, and she was involved in just one other fight —and only on the fringes of that one. This past June she graduated from high school, and is now working full-time—OK, it’s McDonald’s—and hoping to go to community college.

Vredenburgh is quick to deflect the credit to others. Sherice’s mother made the initial phone call and made sure that Sherice stayed with the program. Big Brothers Big Sisters would have provided Sherice with another qualified Big Sister if Vredenburgh hadn’t been there. And Sherice herself had to do the real work. But the bottom line is that, with a little help from a caring adult, she did it—and, in doing so, gave herself a chance.

Sherice is just one girl, and her story represents just one, tentative success. Kids—the troubled and the not-so-troubled—all have different stories to tell, and predicting how they will turn out is a dicey business. But a rough, simple formula still applies: Caring Adult + Foundering Kid = Less Trouble + More Hope. Is it rocket science? No. World-changing? Yes.

This is where Vredenburgh comes in. Because she is not just a Big Sister; she’s the Biggest Sister of them all: president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the nation’s oldest and largest youth-mentoring organization, based in Philadelphia and now celebrating its 100th year. From its modest beginnings in 1904—when 39 men answered the call by a New York Juvenile Court clerk named Ernest Coulter to become “big brothers” to troubled boys—the organization that evolved now matches more than 220,000 Little Brothers and Sisters with carefully selected adults in some 470 communities around the country. Its longevity is rooted in a philosophy that borders on the timeless.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05

The Biggest Sister
By Samuel Hughes

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