Over the course of five years, a friendship has blossomed into a family bond.

Sally Hood signed up for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in 2012, and the first child she was matched with was Tabitha Farmer. They started spending hours every week together.

Sometimes they’d work on crafts or bake cookies together. More often than anything, they’d do community service — collecting food for the Humane Society of Johnson County or making Easter baskets for nursing home residents.

At Christmas, they exchange gifts and celebrate together. One year, Hood and her family cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner and delivered it, hot, to share with Tabitha and her family.

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“She’s part of the family, like another sibling for my kids and a cousin for my grandson,” Hood said. “She’s like my best friend.”

Hood and 15-year-old Tabitha have become vital parts of each other’s lives, developing a close relationship forged through their participation in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

The mentorship organization has changed both of them for the better.

“It’s not everything I’m teaching her. She’s teaching me too — enjoying the smaller things in life, being thankful for what I have,” Hood said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is a national organization that pairs children in need with adult role models. Research shows that mentoring helps children achieve greater success academically, overcome behavioral issues and develop the confidence and vision that will provide a better future, according to a study conducted by Big Brothers Big Sisters.

After 18 months in the program, children are 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin drinking alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school, the study concluded.

“We know that any kid can always use the support of an extra positive adult role model, so we reach out to kids to match them up with that one-to-one person in their life,” said Amy Essley, chief program officer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana. “In the work we do, we see the positive benefits in their school success and making good choices.”

Big brothers and sisters meet for a minimum of about five hours each month, doing activities such as hiking, playing sports, fishing or going to the movies. Mentors help their little siblings with homework, or just hang out and talk with them.

Becoming an individual mentor is the most common way to be part of the organization, but Big Brothers Big Sisters has also crafted opportunities that meet different volunteers situations. Pairs of family members, co-workers or acquaintances can become Big Friends, working together to mentor a child. Big Couples work in the same way, only with spouses.

“We want someone who can just make that their commitment. You don’t have to have any specialized skills or training. We just want someone who can be consistent and share their time with a child,” Essley said.

Even before she became a big sister herself, Hood was impacted by Big Brothers Big Sisters. As a single parent, her children were involved in the program in Henry County, in order to add another positive adult role model to their lives, Hood said.

“I was a full-time mom, I was a full-time employee, I was going to nursing school, so they came in and provided something else for my kids,” she said. “Because my kids experienced that, I thought it was the least I could do.”

When Hood was matched with Tabitha, they bonded over their love of crafts. Like a normal 10-year-old kid at the time, Tabitha had very little patience to sit and complete some of their projects.

But over time, Hood has seen her mature.

“She now has patience. She can sit down and paint a small figurine, and be so detailed about it. She told me, ‘I couldn’t do this if it wasn’t for you,’” Hood said.

Helping to shape Tabitha into a successful young woman has been Hood’s goal from the start, even if that can be a tricky line to walk, Hood said.

“It’s about being a mentor, to be an impartial friend, not a parent. She has parents and grandparents and siblings, but now she has an extended family with me and my family,” she said.

Instead, Hood teaches. She has imparted the importance of thanking military service members whenever they see one. Attending church, focusing on school work and being a good employee are all cornerstones of life.

“That’s what being a big sister is about. You’re there to walk beside them, walk with them, comfort them and guide them,” Hood said.

Through Big Brothers Big Sisters, they’ve been able to have incredible experiences. They were able to travel to Chicago and attend a baseball game.

During the Main Event, the organization’s primary fundraiser, they were able to meet racing star Helio Castroneves. They have gone to places such as Holiday World, the Indiana State Fair or the Indianapolis Zoo.

But balancing the fun activities are the projects both Hood and Tabitha have chosen to improve the community around them.

They collect caps from medicine bottles, vitamins and other plastic containers. Once they have amassed five 40-gallon plastic bags worth, they can turn them in to a company who will recycle the material into a bench for Franklin Community High School, where Tabitha is a student.

Hood and her family have “adopted” the road they live on, and Tabitha always helps when they go out to pick up trash along it.

Their most recent project focused on Jacob Thompson, a 9-year-old boy living in Maine. Jacob was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma in 2014, and earlier this year, he was told by doctors he only had months to live.

His dying wish was to celebrate Christmas early, since he might live long enough to see it. Friends and family asked people to write him Christmas cards, and send them to him early.

When Hood saw Jacob’s story on the news, she was moved to take part.

She and Tabitha organized a letter-writing campaign throughout central Indiana. Tabitha wrote a letter outlining the need, and delivered it to Franklin College, schools, doctors’ offices, businesses and nursing homes.

By mid-November, they had hundreds of letters to send. Jacob died on Nov. 19, but Hood and Tabitha still plan to send the cards to his family, to serve as a comfort to them, Hood said.

For Hood’s birthday, Tabitha wrote a short note to Hood. She shared just how much her friendship and influence has meant in her life, and how she’s taught her it’s better to give than to receive.

“There is no better friend than a sister, and there is no better sister than you,” she wrote.

Tabitha will be in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program until she is 18, but the friendship she’s developed with Hood will last a lifetime. Even after they are no longer big and little sisters, they’ll remain family, Hood said.

But it also has inspired Hood to sign back up as a mentor, to start again and help change another young girl’s life.

“It’s such a rewarding experience. Anyone who has the time should experience it,” Hood said. “There are so many kids who need an outside, impartial friend.”

At a glance

How to sign up to be a mentor

Requirements:

  • Be 19 years old or older.
  • Be able to meet with a child on average two to four times a month, for a minimum of four hours per month.
  • Commit for at least 12 months.
  • Must be willing to complete interview process, including background check.
  • For complete volunteer requirements, go to bebigforkids.org

How to sign up to be a little brother or sister

Anyone interested can go to bebigforkids.org to sign up online, or contact youth engagement specialist Linda Perry at lperry@bbbsci.org or 317-472-3744.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.