Nine years ago, Winona Thompson of the University City area answered the call of Weeping Willow AME Zion Church in Charlotte for volunteers to mentor at-risk children for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Charlotte.
She was matched in September 2004 with an 8-year-old girl whose mother was seeking to enroll her children in the mentoring program.
Thompson’s “Little” is now 17. Thompson, 62, has mentored her for nearly a decade; the average match lasts about three years.
Thompson has seen her role as a “Big” evolve as her Little grew up, watching her match “hang in there through the circumstances.”
Early on, she took her Little to church, to nursing homes to volunteer, and to seasonal activities like egg hunts and pumpkin patches. Thompson said she sought out activities that might have a deeper impact than simple recreational activities.
She has also celebrated her Little’s birthday each year, as well as attending the organization’s annual Christmas Bash with her.
Thompson has often sent her Little letters and cards over the years, including a stamped envelope so the girl could easily respond.
She keeps a three-ring binder full of keepsakes, correspondences and drawings from her Little that the girl has made through the years.
And Thompson still remembers when she kept items like coloring supplies in her car for her Little.
Today, her Little considers Thompson a part of her family. A senior in high school, she often reaches out to Thompson by phone.
Nominations for Big of the Year are made by parents of the mentored children in a written statement. The staff and board members of BBBSGC then vote on the nominations. This year, Thompson was one of seven finalists.
“It is very competitive,” said Heather Egan, the organization’s marketing and communications manager. “ … It is so hard to pick!”
Thompson was chosen for her dedicated long-term involvement with her Little, who called her “a real sister” in the nomination material.
Thompson said her “three W’s of mentoring” are to “work as a role model and mentor; (and saying) words of encouragement, and words of love and caring.”
“That’s what I’ve done up to this point and what I will continue to do as a Big Sister,” said Thompson. She calls encouragement the “key component” of mentoring.
Recently she was surprised to learn that her Little still has a present Thompson gave her for the pair’s first Christmas: an angel with a voice-recorded message she made for the girl.
Thompson even penned a poem about her experiences as a Big Sister.
Thompson was born in Asheville and has lived in the University City area for more than 20 years. She retired in 2011 after 38 years as an occupational therapist, both in the Army and as a civilian. She was widowed in 1993. She has one son, of whom she said she is very proud.
She learned how to be a role model from her own mother, who was a Girl Scouts leader and enrolled her daughter in Scouts.
Thompson said she is “humbled and appreciative” of being honored as Big of the Year.
“I do feel that my involvement with her over the years has had a positive impact on her life,” said Thompson.
According to BBBSGC’s website, “83 percent of former Littles surveyed agree that their Big instilled values and principles that have guided them through life.”
The organization matches at-risk children with mentors, including children with incarcerated parents through a partnership with the Amachi Foundation. According to the Charlotte affiliate’s website, about 5,000 children in the Charlotte area have incarcerated parents, and those children are 70 percent more likely than other children to be incarcerated themselves at some time during their lives.
BBBSGC has 143 children waiting to be matched with mentors, 75 percent of which are boys, said Egan. The organization kicked off “Man Up Charlotte” in February, in which it hopes to recruit 100 men in 100 days to mentor the waiting boys.
Thompson recommends becoming a Big to anyone “who can give a little of their time and have fun and encourage.”
“It’s been a rewarding experience. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a pleasure to do it and watch her grow,” Thompson said.